Director: C Prem Kumar
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Trisha, Janagaraj
Composer: Govind Vasantha
Has anyone ever used a song as a Chekhov’s gun? C Prem Kumar does. K Ramachandran (Vijay Sethupathi) longs for a song from his sweetheart, a ditty that he would love to hear from his first love who has remained his only love, 22 years after school – Jaanu (Trisha Krishnan). The song is his own beating heart introduced in the first act of his life when he was about fifteen. It takes a form of its own in his life’s third act – at least the lifetime we are familiar with in 96 – and Prem Kumar unleashes it at the most unexpected moment. It’s the simplest trick that this first-time director performs but when it unfurls and brings a smile to your face, it feels like he has just performed one of the most complicated magic spells. That’s mostly down to Prem Kumar’s patience, his unwavering zeal for letting moments linger, never cutting to the chase. Moments and images are important to him. Like they are to Ram – a travel photographer.
Ram opens the film with the song titled, well, ‘Life of Ram’. He travels all around the country with only his camera and car for company, and it is quickly established that his is a lonely, single man’s life. 96 is pieced together with a bit of old and the new. There is a film set in Thanjavur of the mid 90s and another one in present day Chennai. But even in plot and design, it combines a bit of old and the new. There is nothing earth shattering about another love story. But it is also not a story of unrequited love or of star-crossed lovers or one of the modern day messy, complicated romances. 96 begins as a story about the one that got away and slowly morphs into a story about what could have been. It’s about two people too good for each other, pulled apart by life and circumstances in that order. We learn how the teenage Ram (Aadithya Baaskar) is separated from Jaanu (Gouri G Krishnan) literally overnight. That is a sucker punch to the shy, reluctant Ram because his shyness and nervousness are forever left to fester, and when decades later he meets Jaanu, they remain right there inside him. Prem Kumar captures it in the only right way possible – when the adult Jaanu comes to find Ram in their reunion, we don’t see Sethupathi. We see Aadithya Baaskar, showing his back, turned away from Jaanu, in his school uniform. A less than ten second shot informs a whole lot of detail yet to come.
Never has a male lead in a romance shown his back to the screen this often. When ‘Life of Ram,’ the song, ends and Ram is sitting by a temple pond, the camera tracks him from behind. Ram is written as a cloyingly sweet gentleman who measures every word that comes out of his mouth. He stands in front of a women’s college and asks for a favor from one of the college students. For various reasons, his job remains undone, but he remembers to ask the girl’s name and says thank you. This is not much in real life but if you’ve grown up on a diet of what passes as a-man-in-his-best-behavior in the average Tamil film these days, this is a lot. Even otherwise, these are details that give us a shade of his character. It tells us that Ram can take no for an answer and abide by it. Easily one of the top desirable traits in a man. One of the beautiful aspects of 96 is that it is not only about the guy. Prem Kumar holds back the adult Jaanu in the first 30 minutes. People talk about her, we learn things about her and we spend time with the 15-year-old version. But for a story that is not necessarily built on any suspense factor, we long for the adult Jaanu the way Ram longs for that song, which leads to one of the greatest introductions for a female lead in cinema this year.
Govind Vasantha’s music goes a long way in establishing this but Prem Kumar plays the cards close to his chest to give a moment with incredible payoff. And then he lets her talk and pour her heart out. When 96 focuses on Jaanu, it makes that its only purpose. Jaanu stands at the side of Ram’s car and recalls an event from her past. The camera stays with Jaanu, it doesn’t cut to Ram to get his reaction (and trust me, the things she says would have tempted anyone to look at how Vijay Sethupathi would play off of it). This might be a story about two people, but it retains an admirable sense of respect for individuality.
Memory is an integral part of 96 and Prem Kumar has cheeky ways of tapping into our own. He doesn’t go for an artificial period setting, he wants us to feel the period rather than see it. The roads and surroundings in 1994 remain mostly the same. As does the school. One might catch a torn poster of Sethupathi IPS. The visuals are not left uncorrected and there is no sepia. Instead, Prem Kumar tries several different things. The camera grazes the courtyards of All Saints Matriculation School with the first interlude of ‘Putham Puthu Kaalai‘ from Alaigal Oivathillai. Nothing transports you inside your head the way music does and for this purpose, Prem Kumar stands on the shoulders of a giant – Ilaiyaraaja, the first one to be thanked in the opening credits. Jaanu is a singer, named after S Janaki herself, and she gives us renditions of everything from ‘Aasai Adhigam Vechu‘ to ‘Thendral Vandhu’. It’s noteworthy that the songs always take off from their interlude or in the middle and never return to their pallavi.
Early in the film, Ram looks at a small bridge with an ache in his face and heart. Jaanu and Ram never cross that physical and the metaphorical bridge and these songs remain incomplete as an ode to them. The other curious thing Prem Kumar does is with his casting. In small but significant roles, he casts Janagaraj and Kavithalaya Krishnan. While this writer cannot speak for others, these decisions do go a long way in creating a throwback, again, in our head.
But to take home in all its completeness, there is Govind Vasantha’s music. In a way, 96 is an unabashed musical because while we are on a date with Ram and Jaanu, their conversations and unspoken glances are frequently accompanied by a complimenting soundtrack. The lyrics can be a little too on the face for the respective moments but used in the most appropriate fashion, tapping into the right emotional beats, and with these two, there are several different beats.
Trisha Krishnan has been around for a long time and this film needed someone who is experienced, both in life and in films. There would have been something off about, say, a 24-year-old playing the adult Jaanu. Trisha plays Jaanu with a kind of restraint never seen before from her and she betrays just enough love for and frustration with the reticent Ram. This is also unlike any other Vijay Sethupathi performance. He doesn’t get wisecracks, he doesn’t get the best lines. It’s all about Ram’s inability to say words. There is a moment when Jaanu explains why women would potentially be mad about guys like Ram, in the process, baring her own soul. Sethupathi, at first, is once again filmed from the back. We concentrate on Jaanu, describing that thought process, and Sethupathi turns his face to the side, unable to contain the multitude of blushes. That’s when Ram lets his guard down and Sethupathi plays like he knows that. Prem Kumar knows that too. He’s just crafted a most fulfilling tale about an unfulfilled romance.
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