Director: C. Prem Kumar
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Trisha, Varsha Bollamma
It makes sense that Ram (Vijay Sethupathi), the protagonist of C. Prem Kumar's 96 (as in 1996, the year Ram's class graduated from high school), is a travel photographer. The travel part of his job description takes him around the world, and this nomadic existence is an excuse for him to stay single — he doesn't have to come back to a home, every day, to someone who reminds him that he's not with the love of his life. And the photography is an extension of his nature. Ram is unable to shake off memories of Janaki (Trisha), the girl he loved in school — he is, in other words, stuck in time. And as he says, photography is similar. It has the ability to freeze a moment. In the song 'Life of Ram' / 'Karai Vandha Pirage', a line goes thus: "Kannadiyai pirindhe / Kaankindra ellaamum naanagiren." (I am born a mirror, I become whatever I see.) Ram loses himself in things and people so that he doesn't have to look at his own self. It's a form of escape. Also, denial.
The closing moments of that song see Ram scrawling his name on sand. The camera keeps rising, showing the sea on one side and an unpopulated beach on the other. He could be the last man on earth. In his mind he probably is — he's cut himself away from anything, anyone that roots him. When Ram passes his hometown, Thanjavur, he asks the driver (his student) not to stop. His words are telling. "Yaarayaavathu paatha pesanum." (If I see someone, I'll have to stop and talk to them.) But something changes when they drive past his old school. He stops. He fondly remembers the watchman (Janakaraj, in a lovely cameo; I suppose he's also been cast to amp up the nineties' nostalgia). And when Ram wanders around the empty premises, the director doesn't flash back to classrooms filled with boisterous students. Ram just looks around. He drinks water from the taps. He feels the powdered chalk under a blackboard. This is a superb passage. The director takes his time. Soon, Ram will decide to call up his old classmates, and for a loner like him, this decision cannot be made instantly. It needs some amount of wallowing.
What follows — and all the way till interval point — is a beautiful reunion, but done very realistically. First, Ram eases back into the old group, through Whatsapp. It's a heart-warming stretch, cross-cutting between the twenty-years-later selves as these old friends voice out their chat messages. Then, the reunion occurs. It's as nostalgic as the title design, where the outline of the number "96" is filled with cultural signposts from an era: an audio cassette, a "C:\> prompt" instruction, the Rani Comics logo, and the name of Ilaiyaraaja, whose music plays a major role in the proceedings. For one, Janaki is named after the maestro's go-to female singer. (I mean, besides the more mythical Ram-Janaki connection. Mercifully, the director, who prefers the lower key, doesn't tug at this thread. His love story may be epic, even divine. But he keeps things earthbound and real.)
And two, Janaki sings only S Janaki songs, a conceit that's used wondrously to deposit us into the first flashback, as Ram recalls his days at school. We hear the first interlude of 'Putham Pudhu Kaalai' — and CUT TO Janaki (as in, this film's Janaki) singing the first stanza in her voice, in front of enthralled classmates. (Let's not forget that the song is from Alaigal Oyvadhillai, one of the most enduring films about young love). Young Ram is smitten. Adithya Baskar (MS Baskar's son), with his wisp of a moustache, and Gouri Kishan play the school-going versions of Ram and Janaki. They're terrific — as is everyone around them. Note the young boy beside Ram whose eyes widen when he realises Ram and Janaki are in love. It's a joyous little "silent" performance.
It's inevitable that 96 brings to mind a number of love stories. If the early portions are reminiscent of Autograph, the post-interval stretch, set after the reunion, with the grown-up Ram and Janaki catching up with each other over a long night of conversation, plays like Before Sunset. But why stop with movies? Even literature is full of these tales. The haunting ellipses of unrequited love (recalled during a day's meeting) takes you back to MT Vasudevan Nair's Vanaprastham. And the young Ram's reaction to Janaki echoes Florentino Ariza's thumping-heart adoration from Love in the Time of Cholera. (From the Marquez novel: "The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later." That could be the grown-up Janaki.)
But Prem Kumar localises this universal story exquisitely — he makes it his own. Ram may be sentimental, but Prem Kumar isn't. How easy it would have been to unleash a torrent of tears when Janaki, after getting wet in the rain, changes into Ram's shirt! (She's married now.) How convenient it would have been to veer into melodrama when Ram asks Janaki to step into his house with her right foot, or when he catches sight of her thali! How tempting it must have been to stage the scene where Janaki sings 'Yamunai Aatriley' (it's Ram's long-standing wish) as a crescendo. But these moments — even Janaki's monologue about the things that happened to her after they parted — are remarkably stripped of melodrama. The director wants to make you feel, but he doesn't want you to cry. There's a welcome sprinkling of humour. The friends around the couple — Devadarshini, Bagavathi Perumal, Aadukalam Murugadoss — keep tossing off crisp, no-nonsense lines. They keep things from getting soggy.
Govind Menon, vocalist and violinist of the band Thaikkudam Bridge, helps hugely. The many silent passages help us register the score more easily than in a movie busier with action and dialogue. Ram's rippling emotions are underscored with a piano, and when Janaki turns and smiles at him in class, we get a flute that soars and air-lifts us along with it. When, during the reunion, Janaki hands Ram a half-eaten plate of food and urges him to have some, the soundtrack bursts into a waltz, as though this painfully plain act were actually a private dance duet. The songs are fantastic and the lyrics (by Karthik Netha and Uma Devi, who coin refreshing and unusual rhymes like keerthanai / prarthanai and thaapangal / roopangal) often function as bridges into thoughts. In the line "Iravu ingu theevaai nammai soozhnthathey," night becomes the island on which Ram and Janaki are stranded. Daybreak will shatter this illusion.
Janaki is Trisha's most rounded character since Jessie in Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya. Her innate coolness and reserve — qualities that mar a performance like the one in Kodi, which needed a fair bit of cutting loose — serve Janaki beautifully. (It's amazing that, so many years into the business, Trisha is still an in-demand heroine. When scene after scene unfolded with Vijay Sethupathi, in the first half, a self-styled comic in the audience yelled, "Trisha va kaaminga da… naan vandhadhe adhukkaga dhaan…") And as the "aambala naattu kattai," Vijay Sethupathi sinks his teeth into one of his best roles. There's none of the shtick he often resorts to in order to "liven up" (or maybe "mass-ify") a part. He's phenomenal in the scene where Ram stands frozen, unable to turn and face Janaki after so many years. This is a film that respects both its leads, which is why their names appear together in the opening credits. If the first flashback is from Ram's point of view (narrated in the younger Ram's voice), Janaki leads us into the second one. The class/mass nature of the actors' screen personas also helps. Ram may have risen from his humble beginnings, but he still looks grounded — while Janaki looks, every inch, like the Levi's-wearing upper-class woman settled in Singapore. This oil-water contrast keeps things interesting.
The only problem is the slump in the second half. (The film feels bloated at 157 minutes.) One reason is surely that the anticipation around Ram meeting Janaki is more dramatic than the actuality. Also, the Ram-Janaki conversations in the second half become monotonous, revolving around their parting and their longing, when — given the unsentimental nature of the film — they could have included detours into his work, or her life in Singapore. But the premise is so affecting, it keeps us invested. I loved the what-if scenario that reimagines their past. I loved the scene where Ram asks if Janaki is happy, and she replies that she's… at peace. It's not the answer to his question. Yet, it is. I loved the stretch where Ram shows Janaki his suitcase filled with nostalgic memorabilia. "Pazhaya vaasanai," Janaki calls it. The scent of the past. I walked out of the film satisfied that whatever Ram and Janaki decide to make of their future, his ink-splattered shirt from school and the dupatta of her uniform will live together, happily ever after, in an old piece of moulded-plastic luggage. The past remains frozen in time, just like Ram's photographs.