96

Too often, a movie that has received a lot of acclaim and love ends up disappointing a viewer who is a little late to the party. I had heard and read such praise about ‘96 that I was wary of watching it. I never really sat down to watch it, and only saw it when it was running on TV and I had nothing else to do. It was one of those instances where I was happy to be proven wrong. ‘96 turned out to be wonderful.

The makers of the film made a wise choice in avoiding several embellishments that would have been easy to add but would have weighed the film down unnecessarily. While nostalgia is an overarching theme throughout the movie, there is no longing for or glorification of the 1990s as an era — something global popular culture is guilty of over-indulging in. The student crushing on the teacher who must be at least 15 years older than her is not presented as a possible replacement for the childhood sweetheart; if anything, Ram is embarrassed by Prabha’s doe-eyed admiration for him. And very importantly, there is no villainisation of Jaanu’s husband or no convenient widowhood plot for her. Stripped of these tropes, what remains is a story that is told simply, without ignoring its inherent complexities.

Many nuances are portrayed effectively. Ram is a modern, well-travelled man who unwittingly still carries his small-town roots, as seen when he dismisses talk about virginity as a ‘puppy-shame’ topic. Jaanu’s sister’s elopement leading to her hasty arranged marriage for her family to save face is a sensible explanation for why she never tried to get in touch with Ram, despite having his cousin as her best friend in school.

The reunion is also replete with interesting observations about how people behave at such events. People in their late 30s go back to being teenagers, still a little awkward around their former crushes, despite being married with children. And men who are successful in their careers bow down before Subha’s friendly bullying tendencies, just like they did in school. The only people who comfortably ward off her overbearingness are Ram and Jaanu, the cousin and the best friend, who were never intimidated by her, to begin with.

 

Despite the variety of intelligent nuggets, it is easy for me to choose my favourite thing about ‘96: its portrayal of intimacy. When Ram and Jaanu meet at the reunion after 22 years, all eyes are on them, especially those of their closest friends, Subha and Murali. They worry about Ram and Jaanu picking up from where they left off not when the two are hidden from the others behind the inflatable bouncy castle, but when they share a meal from a plate, like an old married couple, in front of everyone.

Even when they are alone in Ram’s apartment, they are at their most intimate when they sit on the floor, eating a meal that Jaanu has cooked for them. They both refer to the other as reminding them of their respective mothers in the same scene. Much like a concerned family member, Jaanu takes Ram to a salon, demanding that he get his hair cut shorter and shave off his moustache and beard, and later sets up a matrimonial profile for him, insisting that he must get married soon.

But there is no expectation on either side when they do all this. Ram does not think that Jaanu will leave her husband for him. And Jaanu does not need Ram to play her saviour. They just want to spend some time with each other, talk, and get the closure that they have been denied for the last 22 years.

There is a moment when Ram asks Jaanu if she is happy in her life, and she says that what she has is a peaceful life. At the end of the movie, when Ram places Jaanu’s clothes in his suitcase of memories, we imagine that his feelings at that moment must have been the same. It is not a happy ending, but it is not sad either, and that makes ‘96 that much more endearing.

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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