No viewer in their right mind would take Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) for an inwardly religious guy. But don’t be surprised if the palpable piety with which Raj submits to Janu (Trisha), his long-lost love, evokes images of the deeply religious. It’s the personal religion of people who live with the life-long burden of unfulfilled love. Some of its followers are set for a life of self-delusion, and others on a path towards self-discovery. Raj’s life fits the description of those living loveless lives. But he doesn’t miss the feeling of being loved. Perhaps because he was once loved by a goddess in whose memories he’s happy to spend the rest of his life.
Raj, a travel photographer, probably does not care much for the portraits of myriad deities adorning the walls of his apartment. Clearly not as much as he cares for the souvenirs of a failed teenage romance he secretly keeps in his suitcase. As the opening song sequence demonstrates the passion for photography allows him to translate his lonliness into creative energy, giving him a purpose of sorts. But it’s the short-lived teenage affair and all its concomitant memories that continue to make his world go around. An unplanned visit to his school sends Raj down the nostalgic memory lane. His friends organize school get together where Raj crosses paths with Janu for the first time since 96.
Upon meeting Janu, he exhibits more childlike naivety than he did in 10th grade. He sees that she is still every inch the goddess he worships. The girl whose rendition of classic Tamil songs sent him into a state of trance, and whose mere presence made his heart pound, knees weak and head dizzy. A lot has happened over 22 years. As they do some catching up, and regretfully reopen the chapters of teenage love, unsurprisingly we find ourselves longing for their unlikely union.
But Ram clearly knows what’s up. He knows that they’re both past the point of no return, that his bittersweet memory of the ill-fated romance was to be put to bed once and for all, and that as most adolescent lovers with unfulfilled love stories, he should let his own story disappear in the annals of high school. He avoids making long eye contact, and dismisses her wistful, if not amorous, advances with a resolve unique to the celibate sages in Hindu epics. Just when story seemed to be heading towards a stalemate, some good piece of writing took over. Instead of dramatizing the story to its logical end, the writer bravely maintains an unhurried pace, inviting us to snuggle up to the vulnerable warmth of Raj’s idiosyncrasies. As if knowing the lightness of the premise and scope of character development, film nearly seems self-conscious of not letting things veer into predictable terrain.
Not a single frame looked out of depth because it was either rich in detail or complemented by Govind Menon’s atmospheric acoustics. There are moments when the melancholy tone of the score elevates the matter of fact screenplay and expresses in purely musical form things that are better left unverbalized. The soul-stirring violin riff from theme song, when not heard on screen, could be heard from the phones of people at the cinema. Just like the screenplay, the music was well wrought together with perfect tonal hues for various circumstances. It’s worth noting that there’s no swooping presence of saccharine music throughout the narrative as one would come to expect in a romantic melodrama. Rather, you have melodies biding their time to strike you in the right place at the right time. The violin riff only surfaces twice or thrice like a brief spell of drizzle to quench your thirst for catharsis.
It was interesting how the disarmingly engaging chemistry of the couple was every now and then punctuated by cutaway shots, adding in the process a sense of incompleteness to their conversations. I felt like those shots were well executed subliminal tricks to make you see the incompleteness that defines their past and present relationship. While sequences revealing reasons for lovers’ misfortune appear to border on the hinges of soapy melodrama, the newcomer follows them up with a magical plotline spin that totally floored me. From start to the end, I found it hard to get my head around the fact that 96 was the work of novice. But then I learned that C. Prem Kumar was cinematographer turned director. It also lends credence to the theory about cinematographers making the best directors
Film also goes a long way in breaking the stereotypical practice of assigning masculinity labels to men based on their appearance. Some scenes particularly struck me as an exploration of the femininity in the manifest manliness. I can’t recall the last time I saw people getting so transported by a movie that they forgot their snacks order, leaving the delivery boys loiter around longer than usual to catch their attention. 96 is a melodrama of rare variety which although slightly repetitive at times as the characters ruminate over the vicissitudes of fate, does away with most of the conventions we’ve grown tired of seeing in romance drama. Also it didn’t seem overly concerned with titillating the crowd’s sensibility to its advantage. What 96 does is, it drenches you in the sound of sorrow akin to that of the reverberating violin riff, but it is very much unlike anything you’ve experienced at the cinema of late.