96 lead

It’s been a year since 96 released, and I still catch myself thinking about Ram, Janu and their ‘unhappily ever after’. I imagine it’s raining wherever Ram is right now. I get a sense that their meeting has been harder on Janu than it must have been on Ram. If her marriage was not more than functional before their reunion, I assume it’s on the verge of a collapse now. Or, maybe, she has found the strength to move on.

Of all of Ram’s travels, couldn’t there have been at least one trip that required him to go to Singapore? And, if so, do you think he would have the guts to give Janu a call to fix up another meeting? Can these two broken people ever find a way to fix themselves? Are they friends now, with Janu WhatsApping Ram far too many photos of her daughter and her home in Singapore? I hope not.

Prem Kumar
Director Prem Kumar

Prem Kumar, the film’s writer-director, has his own take on what they’re upto now, even though these characters are as much ours as they are his. As they celebrate one year of their unforgettable meeting, we delve into their worlds with the help of their creator.

I look at 96 as a tragedy with an ending that leaves behind little hope. Do you see it the same way?

I won’t call it a tragedy. Their separation at the end was inevitable and the viewer knows that. It’s like death, in one sense. We know it’s going to happen, but we’re always afraid of it even though we’re not going to feel anything then. The fear comes from the HOW. How are things going to end becomes the worry. There’s a duality in viewers’ minds when watching 96. On the one hand, they really want something to happen between Ram and Janu. But, they’re also afraid of what would happen if they eventually get together. Even if they cried at the end of the movie, they know somewhere that what happened was right in its own way.

Why do think it is so? Wouldn’t have people been happier had they been together now?

That’s our cultural conditioning. Physical intimacy, in our context, is considered “impure”. I know that this is a very Indian mindset, especially with an earlier generation, but that’s what made the climax work so well. Despite them not ending up with each other, the audience was happy that Ram and Janu still got a chance to spend time together. For a lot of people from my generation, I’m 41 by the way, that one meeting is all we want. We wouldn’t want to jeopardise Janu’s marriage and her relationship with her daughter for our sake.

But don’t you think their meeting would have made things even more painful for both of them?

But, love IS pain, isn’t it? Eventually, love finds a way to leave behind pain. While it is happening, there is ecstasy. What remains now for both Janu and Ram are the memories. It may not make their lives difficult because anything that has the power to go into your memory can eventually become pleasure.

What kind of guy do you think Janu’s husband is? In my head, he looks a lot like Mohan from Mouna Ragam.

In the movie, there is a scene at Ram’s apartment where Janu tells him that her husband is a very nice man and good father. I too think of him as the ideal husband. But, that does not mean that two good people can make a great marriage. Love is something else.

Do you think Janu has told her husband Saravanan about her meeting with Ram?

I think Saravanan knows. He knows that his wife has someone in her heart. He knew that Janu will go meet him, fall in love again, express everything that’s in her heart. But he also knew that she will come back to him and their daughter. That’s why he must have been fine with the idea of her going for this reunion. There may be many husbands who might be against such as idea, but there are just as many who would want their wives to experience something like this. Because, a lot of people end up with someone who they don’t really love. One’s dreams and eventual realities end up looking very different, especially for women. I think the men of my generation could have still tried telling their parents that they’ve fallen in love and try to make it happen. But, for a woman, it was very difficult. The man had to express his love first and he had to be strong enough to propose the idea of them getting married. Caste and community too becomes another obstacle then. Like Janu, a lot of women may have ended up getting married to someone they hardly knew. Even in my own family, the women could not marry the men they loved. Which is why a reunion or such a meeting becomes a lifelong dream and Saravanan understands this. He is not a villain. He is, in fact, a hero. He is as good a person as Ram…or even better.

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Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha in a scene from 96

But Janu might want to have confessed, right? At least, if there was any guilt.

She need not! You confess only when a sin has been committed. Their meeting was not a mistake. This is part of Janu’s journey. Janu believed that meeting Ram again would lead to relief. But that is shattered the moment she realises that he is unmarried and STILL in love with her. It is again a generational issue. We’re not as good at communication as you guys are now. But, the moment Janu walked back home from the reunion, her husband would have known.

I feel Janu would have gone into a state of depression after that. She is perhaps going through the most painful phase of her life. She now knows that the man she loves is still in love with her but she cannot do anything about it. She is surely going to change as a person.

So, you’re saying her life is messed up right now?

It need not get messed up. People change as life goes by. We had best friends in school and college and you have best friends now, but they are not the same. They keep changing because we experience different things during different phases. As we undergo certain emotions, people around us too share the pain and pleasure. Her pain will become a part of Saravanan’s life, and it his responsibility to share whatever Janu must be going through, and there’s nothing wrong in that. If my wife is going through something like Janu, I won’t step back and say ‘it’s your life and it’s your problem’. That’s how Saravanan will be too because, at the end of the day, Janu did not abandon her family to be with Ram. It’s his turn to reciprocate now.

Let me put it this way. Let’s assume Janu is from a younger generation. And let’s also assume that Janu decided to leave her family for Ram. Do you think she would have remained unhappy even then?

If she’s from your generation, she may have found happiness. I really admire your generation. You guys won’t ruin your lives for others. Today, an unhappily married couple in their 20s can meet at a coffee shop and say ‘this is not working out’. A younger Janu would have been able to say that the person she’s in love with is still waiting for her. They could sit together and work out a solution without it getting too bad. I even have this friend who got married to a woman with a daughter from a previous marriage and they’re both very happy.

So, if you’d written 96 as though it’s happening in my generation, what would have been different?

I don’t think there is such a film. Because, it is obvious that a Ram and Janu from this generation would end up together. There is no conflict then. The conflict in 96 comes from the fact that there is no possibility of them getting together. The film is about two people in love spending the night together when there is no one to disturb them. What will they do? That’s where the tension comes from.

Do you think Ram and Janu are at least keeping in touch? At least as friends?

That again is a reasonably new concept for someone like me. I see a lot of ex-lovers who are friends now. I’m not commenting about it or judging them, but for us, it’s not possible to see the love of your life be with someone else. That is the biggest pain they can undergo. That’s why Ram runs away before Saravanan ties the thali. Till then, she was HIS Janu. But, after that, she is not. That’s how we are.

In the film, we get to see Ram’s daily life and how Janu forms a part of it. How is Ram a part of her life, at least until their meeting?

For her, it’s an everyday affair. The image of Ram’s face from 10th standard is what keeps coming to her mind when she’s trying to console herself. That’s why she wants Ram to shave off that beard when they go to the saloon. Whenever she is happy, sad or neutral, she thinks about Ram…this could be when she’s cooking, or when she’s waiting for her husband to return or after dropping off her daughter at school.

So, her journey up until the meeting would have been similar to Ram’s?

Exactly. People have a tendency to move on. They say time has the power to heal. But time fails, sometimes. Ram and Jaanu are classic examples of that.

When I watched the song about Ram’s daily life, I got the sense that he could be going through depression…

I don’t think he is depressed. Someone going through depression will not be travelling so much, seeking so much pleasure. He is trying to find the love of Janu elsewhere…and it is through Nature. See, it’s very easy for Ram to have ended up becoming a Casanova. He can just go sleep around with multiple women, trying to forget this, but he didn’t, because he wants that to be intact. He is feeling that void and loneliness but he is not depressed.

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The girl whose ‘half-delivered’ message changes Ram and Janu’s life forever in 96

Beyond cultural or generational circumstances, I see Ram and Janu’s story as one where fate has played a part. In the beginning of the movie, there’s a roadblock that forces Ram’s student to take a diversion that passes through Thanjavur, his home town. The same way, had Janu’s collegemate remembered Ram’s name when he visits her, they might have gotten together.

Yes. That’s how I wrote it. In the college sequence, he comes all the way after so many years to go and meet her. He even informed someone to call her. But, fate intervened to keep them separated. But, after 20 years, fate plays its role again to block that particular road. When Varsha’s character takes that detour, that’s when the lives of Ram and Janu take a detour. It is leading towards a change because that’s what they are longing for. If there was no roadblock, another decade or two might have passed before their meeting.

How do you look at that scene in which Janu narrates her love story to his photography students in the coffee shop? Even though it’s untrue, does that image of them as a couple ring true to what they would have been like, had fate been kinder?

Precisely.

Would he have still been a photographer?

Yes, and he would have taken Janu along wherever he goes. That would have been the ideal future. In fact, I even know a world-famous photographer whose name is Ramachandran who travels along with his wife for assignments. That’s how Ram and Janu would have been.

The name leads me to my next question. Can you tell me why you decided to name him Ramamchandran and her Janaki, which is another name for Sita?

There is a strong reason behind this. When I first wrote the script, they were named Vinoth and Janani. Vinoth, because vinodam in Tamil means unusual or unique. And Janani, because that’s my niece’s name, and we call her Janu. But, after finishing that script, director Balaji Tharaneetharan felt that this story is very much like Lord Rama and Sita’s. Theirs is actually an unfulfilled love story. They never got to be together. That’s when I changed the names. So, we named him Ramachandran and her Janaki, also because her parents are huge S. Janaki fans.

In Janu’s case, she got married right when she was in college. But, Ram had a lot more time. So, do you think Ram has at least been attracted to another girl in this time?

In a few districts in Tamil Nadu, you can still find people who dress like MGR. They wear long-collared shirts and bell bottoms. They know that they look funny, but they also know that they are stuck in a particular time. Stuck for eternity. They are happy the way they are. Ram is like that. Ram never expresses a need to meet someone or get married because he too is stuck. Even his sexual desires take a back seat. When you wake up and go to bed with only one person’s face appearing before you, that’s a very profound feeling. That’s going to kill you. He lives in that agony.

In that sense, don’t you think he should be doing something about it? Get help, perhaps?

I don’t know if he needs help. I’m not saying its right or wrong, but that’s just how Ram is made. He doesn’t feel he’s in an inferior position. He doesn’t think he is suffering. He’s in her memories, seeking solace in Nature. Had he met someone he feels is “better” than Janu, he may have fallen in love. But, that hasn’t happened.

Don’t you think he’ll be blind to it, even if he were to meet someone else?

You never know, because you can’t define life like that. Take my own example. I have been telling everyone my whole life that I will never direct a film. I only wanted to keep improving as an cinematographer. Today, I’ve directed a film. This happens because my ideologies have changed. Life always finds a way to put you in places where you throw away your rigid principles and ideologies. And, you give in. This can happen to Ram as well. He may remain a bachelor for life, but he may also find someone who replaces Janu.

Do you think Ram and Janu will ever meet again?

I very badly want them to. That’s what I’m hoping for them. But, I know that it won’t be a planned meeting. It has to be fate again.

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