Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Shruti Haasan, Jagapathi Babu, Harish Uthaman, Kalaiyarasan
Director: S. P. Jananathan
Genre: Drama Thriller
Duration: 2 hrs 24 mins
The late SP Jhananathan was a filmmaker who saw films as a means to propagate his ideology. Naturally, there was more than a whiff of preachiness in his films. Laabam is no exception. The film is an outcry against capitalism, about how the greed to make profits leads to making decisions that seem good in the short term, but are actually long-term disasters for both the people and the planet.
His protagonist is Pakkiri (Vijay Sethupathi), the farmers’ association president of Peruvayal, who wants to reclaim Panchami land that has been usurped by the landlords, give it back to the common man and use it for a community farming initiative that would benefit all the farmers of the village. But the big shot of the place, Vanangamudi (Jagapathi Babu, typecast for the hundredth time as a greedy capitalist) has other plans. He wants to start a bio-diesel project that will fetch him billions. And with the police and politicians in his pocket, Vanangamudi would go to any extent to ensure that his plan succeeds.
Laabam is what one could call a film with good intentions, but are honourable intentions enough to make us care about a film? It depends on how much of the lecturing you can stomach. This is the kind of movie where the protagonist is characterised as someone who seems to know everything and is literally called a God by his people. Here, Vijay Sethupathi — whose look keeps changing from one scene to the next — explains the concept of profit through a loaf of bread (a la Vijay, who gave a communism for dummies line with an idli), details the ways in which sugarcane gets converted into so many products and rues how the sugarcane farmer still remains poor, narrates the history and politics behind land ownership, and so on and so forth. Yes, these are informative moments, but when it comes to storytelling, they can only be described as information dump.
The film’s narrative is quite fractured. Rather than moving from one incident to the other, here, it moves from one issue to the other at a rapid pace giving us a false sense of momentum. The characters, too, are either painted in broad strokes. Pakkiri is said to be a Fakir-like person with worldly knowledge having travelled far and wide, and so, we are asked to consider whatever he says as right. He has a gang of friends, but not a single one is written memorably. The likes of Kalaiyarasan and Sai Dhanshika are wasted in insignificant roles. As for Vanangamudi, he does all the cliched things that rich villains in film do — own a palatial bungalow, have women who service him at his beck and call, has a corrupt cop by his side permanently… well, you know the rest! Then, we also have a mandatory female lead. This is Clara (Shruti Haasan), a performer. The less said about Clara’s significance to the plot the better. We even get a perfunctory romantic track between her and Pakkiri, which is thankfully abandoned as quickly as it is brought into the plot.
Given that Jhananthan is no more, it is hard to decide how much of this messy storytelling is due to his death. The director had shot the film, but had passed away during the editing, with his assistants completing the post-production. But it is tragic that Laabam will remain this filmmaker’s final film.