Laabam Movie Review: Lessons alone don’t make a movie
This Vijay Sethupathi film that attacks owners who prioritise profits above workers, prioritises messaging above entertainment
I have admired the late SP Jhananathan’s films for the passion and utility of his anti-capitalistic ideology. His latest film, Laabam, comes after his passing away; so, I really wanted to like this one as it marks an unfortunately early end to his filmography. This film begins with an animated story of how the British exploited us and how despite our land being a treasure trove of riches, more than a crore people died of starvation. The attempt is to show the heartlessness of enterprises that prioritise profit above all. “Time for the story now,” I thought, but didn’t know at the time how wrong I was.
Director: SP Jhananathan
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Shruti Haasan, Jagapathi Babu
Pakkiri (Vijay Sethupathi) returns to his village after being banished and attempts to rescue the hapless inhabitants from being exploited by the factory owners and their chief, Vanangamudi (Jagapathi Babu playing, as usual, the wealthy, corporate devil). Right, where are we going with the emotional arcs then? Where’s the dramatic tension? What’s the story? Laabam never answers these questions, remaining as it does in educational mode, with Pakkiri acting as our professor. I learned quite a bit, to be fair. I learned that you could create alcohol, paper and electricity out of sugarcane. I learned about the history of how the British snatched land. I learned about the types of electric poles and how much voltage they can generate. So yes, I learned quite a bit. But entertained, I was not.
In its desperate attempts to make sure you don’t find all the lecturing too tedious, it brings in a hilariously miscast Shruti Haasan (playing a character named Clara), who’s apparently a performer trying to make ends meet. You get a couple of so-so Imman songs. You get some strange double entendres in the name of comedy. Clara, for instance, keeps mentioning the Tamil word for ‘seed’ in one bizarre scene. Even before you can recover, you get more generic encouragement: “Uzhaippom, vetriyai kaanbom!”
Even Vijay Sethupathi barely gets going. For vast portions, he seems to be simply going through the motions—like I was through this film. There’s a scene in which he’s supposed to be fainting and I bought it as one in which he pretends to. There’s another scene, one in which he drinks and sings, “Manidhanenbavan dheivamaagalaam…” He winds it up by encouraging everyone around him to drink and says, “Vaanga dheivamaagalaam.” And… nothing. We simply move on to another seemingly incoherent scene. There’s also something about him being a butcher and something about meat and religion, but none of it really matters because they all don’t come together to tell you a story you care about. Composer Imman too seems fairly uninspired both with his score and the songs he has done for this film. As for Jagapathi Babu, all I remember about him in this film is that he plays a corporate villain who likes to have his mute women secretaries hand him colourful alcohol, so he can destress by awkwardly launching himself into his swimming pool.
At one point, Pakkiri is told that for his good intentions and messaging to percolate down to the people, he must communicate them through art and entertainment. For most of his career, the late Jhananathan managed this reasonably, but Laabam, sadly, marks an unfortunate end to his filmography.