There’s something cathartic about watching a film narrated in all honesty. It makes you laugh, and cry, besides invoking a lot of happy memories. That was the sole intention behind writing Vijay Sethupathi-Trisha-starrer 96, says Prem Kumar. With a smile, he adds, “A good old-fashioned love story.”
Surprisingly, Prem says he never felt the jitters first-timers usually feel. “Maybe, deep down, I knew I had made a good film. But it wasn’t overconfidence.”
Though Prem and Vijay Sethupathi have known each other for years, he was not willing to pitch the story to the actor. “Sethu had known me only as a cinematographer. We started our careers together, and I saw him grow as a star. Somehow, one day, I mustered courage and told him I had a script. Once I started narrating it to him, Sethu was extremely supportive. In fact, he was the one who suggested I direct the film myself. I had only wanted to become a writer — direction was something unplanned.”
Prem ventured into Tamil cinema because of Mani Ratnam. “I never learned the art of making films from anyone, but Mani sir is my manaseega guru. His films Thalapathi and Roja inspired me to take to filmmaking. Otherwise, I’m a fan of Steven Spielberg.”
Cut back to 96. “The story was inspired by my school reunion, which I couldn’t attend. No regrets though, I watched the video. It wasn’t extraordinary,” he grins. But Prem managed to find a story-line. “While watching the video, two people caught my attention because they stood out. I eventually figured they were not a couple. This got me curious. I spoke to them. They had a different approach towards life. 96 is my imagination of what it would be like if two characters, Ram and Janaki, met after 22 years. The stories I had heard from the meet made me develop the script further,” he says.
Prem recalls, “I started writing this story during the Chennai floods of 2015 and completed it in 20 days. I wrote during nighttime under candlelight as there was no electricity. Vidinjadhum veetu velaiya paarpen!” (Mornings were kept aside for household chores). First, I had planned to let the story unfold over a week. Then, I brought it down to 24 hours, and then to a night.”
Discussing his lead characters, Prem elaborates why Ram (Sethupathi) was portrayed as a travel photographer. “His life is inconsistent and he doesn’t like to stay in one place. His thoughts were unsettling like his job. He fell in love with Janaki when he was in school, and he’s unable to forget her even though she’s married. I know of a few men who have remained the same as they were in their teens.”
Prem is happy about the opportunity he got. “It’s nice to develop the story through each character’s eyes. You live in that character’s shoes for a period of time, which is equally strange and gratifying.”
His stories, he says, come from a keen observation of what’s happening around him. “That’s how all characters came into being. Janaki (Trisha) wears a watch on her right hand. So do I. I structured Trisha’s character based on the traits of the women I’m familiar with — starting from my wife and the costume designer Subhashree Karthik. That yellow kurta and a pair of blue jeans that you see Trisha wear is pretty much Subhashree,” he grins.
Talking about the casting, he says, Devadarshini’s character, in particular, was based on his own sister. It was Devadarshini’s choice to recommend her daughter Niyathi Kadambi to play her younger self. “When I saw that girl, I couldn’t thank her enough. I wouldn’t have found a better choice.”
Prem admits Trisha was an unusual choice for his film though he says he had written 96 keeping both her and Vijay Sethupathi in mind. He couldn’t stop raving about ‘his Janaki’. “I thought it would be quite a task to rope her in but I was blown away by her simplicity and professionalism. She never behaved like a star. I never saw Trisha. I could see only Jaanu. Trisha welled up multiple times during the narration, and she could relate to her character. I wrote the story from Janaki’s perspective… I thought that made more sense.”
As the conversation progresses, I ask him about music and the ‘Janaki’ connection. Prem says his mother is an avid fan of the singer. “Janaki amma had the most incredible and individual voice, a perfect, crystalline tone with an extraordinary range. Post the release, we all sought her blessings. She’s not only a great singer but a wonderful soul.”
As for music, he says, the credit goes to Govind Vasantha (of the Thaikkudam Bridge band). “He’s a prodigy and gave us some soul-stirring soundtracks. He had worked in Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom as a keyboard programmer. When I explained the requirements, he grasped them and did a fantastic job. 96 wouldn’t have been what it is without his contribution.”
I point out that the second half of 96 — where Ram meets Janaki at the hotel — was filmier than reality. He laughs and offers his apology. He then asked me how old I was. “Maybe if you were closer to my age, you’d have understood why. People of that generation were extremely patient and held some values close to their heart. There was hope, love, affecting, true bonding and togetherness. Nowadays everything is eroding. Ram thought Janaki was his only love. After she was gone, he never wanted another woman. It was how he was. Just because you don’t find a Ram today, doesn’t mean he never existed.”
Prem pauses and continues, “The concept of love changes with time, and that’s what happens. Love is the purest form of expression. It’s mostly about the right time, the right moment and the right occasion. For every ten years, there’s a cultural transformation that happens. And there’s a drastic difference in the way people think, perceive and act. MGR-kaalathoda love vera, ippo irukara love vera. Let me assure you that there are many Rams out there.”
So, is Prem similar to Ram? “Kind of yes,” he laughs and adds, “But I’m not a romantic like my protagonist. Truth be told, romantic dramas never excite me. I’m all for action-adventure films.”
Life after 96
Does he have plans to make a sequel to 96? “Not at all.”
Prem has started work on his next and says it will be completely different from 96. “I discussed it in bits with both Trisha and Sethu. They found it interesting,” he shares.
Now that he’s directed a film, is he open to accepting cinematography commitments? “Do you think they’ll still call me? But, if something promising comes my way, why not?” he signs off.