Director: C Prem Kumar
Cast: Sharwanand, Samantha Akkineni, Varsha Bollama, Gauri Kishan, Vennela Kishore
When we are first introduced to Ram (Sharwanandh), he is in Kenya—Mahendran's camera does a great job capturing the sprawling beauty of the place and juxtaposing it with the puniness of a single man—with nothing but a camera around his neck. He doesn't look happy, but he doesn't look sad either. He looks weathered and there is a hint of longing in his face that creeps in every time he is idle. A man on the run, away from himself, and travel photography seems like a job made just for him. And as if to stop us from pitying this man, the song playing along says, "Naa venta padi nuventha ontarivanodhu anodhu dhayunchi evaru//Inkonni janmalaku saripadu aneka smruthulni itharulu yerugaru" [Please don't chase me and call me lonely//I'm busy collecting memories that'll last a few more lifetimes.] But then again, it is hard not to feel sorry for a man who literally becomes a tree-hugger while nurturing a loss that's almost two decades old.
We already know the story so we know what he is trying to run away from. His first and only love, Jaanu (Samantha). Ram is one of those people who finds it impossible to separate his being from his love for Jaanu. He carries Jaanu around with him, even if all that weight is visibly pulling him down. When he goes back to visit his high school, the first thing he does is sit on his old bench, but only to look towards where Jaanu used to sit. Even his nostalgia isn't about just him. Sharwanand is impressive as this hollow man. And the scene at the reunion where his eyes immediately well up listening to Jaanu sing, despite the fact that she, yet again, refuses his 'Yamuna Thati' request—Illaiyaraaja is everybody's way back to the good old days, manages to make your eyes tear up as well. It doesn't matter what she sings; just as long as she does, he is happy. But the minute you start comparing him with the formidable Vijay Sethupathi, he falls short. Most actors do, so that's not a fair comparison, anyway.
The film's strength, though, lies in the way Prem Kumar writes the two main characters and their interactions. Ram is a brash and edgy individual, who turns soft and anxious in Jaanu's presence, while Jaanu opens up like a book when she is alone with Ram. So, when they finally meet, they aren't trying to go back in time, as their friends fear–Kishore, Sharanya, and Ramesh are adequate as the second fiddles. At least, not deliberately. This is how it is. Jaanu is the only person who can make Ram feel like a bag of sweat. And Ram is the only person that brings out this side of Jaanu. The way she bosses him around, knowing very well that he is defenseless around her isn't just about teenage love, it's also about familiarity and trust. Look out for the scene where Jaanu is showing her daughter's photo around. The way he tries to steal a glance, and the way she endearingly observes him do that, you know it's more than infatuation. It has to be.
This is why the re-imagination—the scene where Jaanu rewrites their love story—is the most impactful scene in a film filled with eventful sequences. And this is exactly why I couldn't stop myself from comparing Samantha's performance to that of Trisha's. Trisha did an impeccable job portraying Jaanu. The wistful glance she throws at Ram after finishing the made-up story with both eyes brimming with tears and a smile on her lips is everything the film tries to convey about a love that is too strong to stay lost. And even though Samantha doesn't match up in this particular scene, she is great otherwise. And so is Chinmayi, the voice that elevates many a performance. The scene where Jaanu holds on to the car's gear and refuses to let go, just so she can feel his hand holding hers and the following scene, where she finally gives up trying to stretch time and realises that she has to leave, are portrayed with notable emotional heft. That said, Gouri Kishan and Sai Kiran, the younger version of Ram and Jaanu, has better chemistry.
The biggest disappointment for me is the film's soundtrack. Not so much the music–Govind Vasantha is this film's music director as well, but the way the songs are written. As a form of expression, the film is very minimalistic in what it chooses to convey. What we get are only snippets of what is going inside these two complex human beings. The film could've chosen to convey something more through songs, but as they are now, they are pretty devoid of depth and poignancy–'Life of Ram' being the exception. An utter shame considering the original's soundtrack. That said, the signature 96 sound and the strings that pull at our heart and force us to feel the pain at display as if it's our own are all still present and well. Praveen K. L's editing, though, I had an issue with. Reaction shots, at times, come a little too late and mess up the emotional beats.
'Maarpula prashna. Maarpule samadhanam' [Question of change. Answer is a series of changes as well.] reads the screen before starting the film. Jaanu says this to Ram and I'm paraphrasing from memory. 'When you find a woman you love and marry, I'll tell her that you are a great guy and that she should take good care of you'. Prabha, Ram's photography student, tells Jaanu the same thing when she mistakes Jaanu for his wife. Is Prabha going to eventually break the Jaanu-shaped wall Ram's built around himself? Maybe. Even though the pain of lost love is spilled all over the film, it is still hopeful in the way Ram's life is going to go. I also liked that the film's chosen not to romanticize pain and obsession. Jaanu has moved on, more or less, and hopefully, Ram will too.
I had a hard time looking past the conceit while watching the original, so I decided to make a conscious effort to make my peace with it, and I did. There are people who cannot find a second love, after their first, great one. Ram is one of those people. And so is Jaanu, except she is a woman and isn't allowed the freedom to take her time. He had the time and luxury to go where his pain takes him and he did. She wasn't given time to process her pain then, she isn't given time to process it now. How is she going to live with all that the night has managed to bring back and some more? Now, that's a film I'd rather watch than a good copy of a great film.