It’s really tragic when a director cannot see the release of his own film. As a filmmaker, SP Jananathan was a bit like Pa. Ranjith in the sense that he wanted to use his movies as vehicles to convey his ideals to the public. The difference is that with someone like Ranjith, the text comes first and all the subtext comes later. So, there’s a story that we can follow first and whatever Ranjith wants to say remains under the story. There are those who get the subtext, but if they don’t, there’s still the main story to look forward to — the flow of the story or the screenplay never gets disturbed.
But often with SP Jananathan, the subtext becomes the text, and there’s no story beyond what he wants to say. He’s not building the story with components that contain the ideals he wants to convey. I liked Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai quite a bit as a movie, but even in an action movie like that, there are dialogues that automatically and very directly convey what the director wants to say.
Now, what’s wrong with that? In Laabam, Vijay Sethupathi plays a character called Pakkiri who is out to reform a village. There’s a family of sugarcane cutters who’ve been doing it for three generations but they’ve never seen the inside of a sugarcane mill. Pakkiri shows them around but what he’s actually doing is showing us around: we learn about molasses, how sugar is whitened, etc. — but what does all this have to do with the main story?
It’s definitely important information and all of us could use more information than just watching, say, empty sitcoms. But if this piece of information about a sugarcane mill can be found in a YouTube video, a Wikipedia article, or a documentary, why do I have to go to the theatre to see a Vijay Sethupathi film?
This is where SP Jananathan’s films have always bothered me — he puts the subtext over the text. In Laabam, Pakkiri comes back to the village (with a Rastafarian look) after traveling around the world. People are leaving the village as they can’t do farming anymore due to tragic circumstances about which we read in the newspapers everyday. But Pakkiri tells them that agriculture is still a viable opportunity if they do collective farming. It’s a viable story but into this Jananathan brings in Vinobha Bhave’s teachings, caste problems in the village, stuff about panchami lands given to Dalits — none of this is wrong but they have to be stitched into a coherent and cohesive screenplay.
The worst decision in the screenplay is to have Shruti Haasan play Clara, a singer–dancer who comes from the city to spread Pakkiri’s teachings to the public. Because apparently people listen better when information is conveyed in an artistic form and not as a lecture (but that’s what we get in the rest of the movie). When this track happened, I was like: oh my god, what were they smoking? It almost becomes like a comedy track.
Take another scene where an impoverished farmer feeds poison to his daughter; she knows that he’s doing it because they don’t have any money. Pakkiri just happens to be passing by and prevents the tragedy. This is a masala scene and someone who was attuned to those sensibilities would have made it into a great drama that would have affected us too. But SP Jananathan doesn’t speak that language and his sensibilities are completely different — the scene is a very direct one and doesn’t get any power or mileage from the writing.
There’s no character development and so people start and end up in the film the same way. There’s no story development either in terms of something interesting happening. We’ve seen all of these ideas in much better movies. And the second half becomes really random when Pakkiri and his gang are excommunicated from the village after which they then set up some kind of a rebel camp (at least that’s what I thought was happening but I was really zoning out by then).
The tragedy of such a film is that you still feel for the points SP Jananathan is trying to make and you know that a lot of it is true. You know that there is a cost for human labour and it’s important to talk about it. You know that it’s ridiculous to give a biodiesel plant a Ganapathi homam. Someone has to talk about how religion and science come together in India. But while wanting to do good is a good quality in a human being, it’s not such a good quality in a filmmaker — unless there’s good filmmaking and writing to back it up. And I felt really sad that SP Jananathan’s filmmaking career has come to an end with such a film.