His name is Ramachandran, her name is Janaki. Like the Janaki of the myth, she is separated from him, taken to another country. Can he find her once again? Make up for the lost time? Unlike the Ramayana, where ambition, revenge and greed come in the way of love, the villain in 96, set in an ordinary school, ordinary roads, ordinary cities, is quite simply circumstances. There are no lustful kings here, no jealous queens, no war, no blood spilled on the ground. And yet, the film acquires the quality of myth, one for our times.
Directed by C Prem Kumar, the film begins with Ram (Vijay Sethupathi), a photographer, leading a life of solitude. You can see that he savours it - observing the butterflies flitting among the flowers, sleeping in a forest, writing on the sands of a beach. He isn't moping around thinking about his great "love failure" although he does have a dense beard. A trip with his students to his hometown makes him want to reconnect with his school friends. Within minutes, everyone is on WhatsApp, chatting animatedly about the days gone by. It speaks of how much the world has changed, how easy it is now to find someone you thought you had lost forever.
A class photograph that someone shares on the WhatsApp group takes us back in time - to the '90s, when the Internet hadn't yet built bridges between the next street and yours, let alone countries and continents; to a time when finding out whether someone loved you back involved the ritual of FLAMES; to a classroom that is deliciously recognisable as your own - from the teacher who asks if you are only "physically present", to the back-bencher staring vacantly at the ceiling, the splotch of ink on someone's white shirt pocket after writing an exam, the nudges and winks accompanying juvenile exchanges of love.
Aadithya Baaskar and Gouri G Kishan play the younger versions of Ram and Janaki, students of ‘Class X C’ in the All Saints school in Thanjavur. While Aadithya resembles Vijay Sethupathi, Gouri looks nothing like the adult Janaki (Trisha). However, Gouri is immensely likeable and we are willing to forgive the film for this dissonance.
There is no big reason for how they fall in love. He doesn't rescue her from anyone or perform any marvellous feat of bravery or sacrifice to catch her eye. She already is quite interested in this boy with his swarthy skin, his shuffling demeanour and awkward ways. Everyone can see the chemistry, including the school watchman (hello Janakaraj! It's nice to see you again). Through giggles and mild teasing, their romance grows, ably aided by their friends - Murali, Satheesh and Shuba (all three young actors are excellent; Shuba young and adult versions are played by mother-daughter duo Niyathi and Devadarshini ) - until it is forced to come to an end.
Twenty-two years later, they meet again. Nothing has changed yet everything has. And this is apparent to their friends too, who are anxious about where this will go. While we're introduced to Vijay Sethupathi from the very first frame without any hyped up "hero" introduction moments, it's Trisha's arrival that has the kind of build-up that we usually see for male stars in mainstream Tamil cinema. When she walks into the screen, in the yellow kurta that's already familiar to the audience through the film's memorable promos, a sigh rises within us. She looks effortlessly beautiful, carrying herself with confidence, an intelligence reflecting in her eyes that the average heroine is never allowed to possess on screen. Just as the world ceases to exist for a moment when Ram hears her name, she too reacts in the same way when told that he is here, at this jolly reunion put together by their friends.
The moment when the two of them meet again is dramatic in the way only real life can be. It's funny and tragic all at once, making us fall in love with this pair that seems so destined to be together and yet cannot. Vijay Sethupathi is a delight as Ram - that breed of awkward, boring south Indian man who is terrible at articulating what he feels, is unnecessarily formal, annoyingly moralistic at times, and drives you around the bend with his stiff silences and self-conscious body language.
In the beginning, we can see that one of his students is interested in him. The camera (cinematography by Shanmuga Sundaram) is on her face as she watches him but when it moves towards him, she goes blurry, out of focus. He's clearly in his own world. Ram is a sea away from the cocksure heroes we're used to seeing, who are omniscient and omnipresent. Even as children, you can see Jaanu trying to make him communicate better - she's a singer and she always refuses to sing a song he repeatedly requests through friends because he never asked her directly. It's the same when they are adults. He lacks confidence, seems to suffer from an eternal inferiority complex - she is always surprised that he doesn't have a better opinion about himself when she does. The conversation the two of them have is so natural as if Premkumar overheard the entire thing at a cafe and wrote the lines down. As Janaki pulls his leg (calling him an "aambala naatukatta", no less), casual and at ease, Ram is distinctly uncomfortable though he really does want to spend time with her.
How different is this from what passes for romance in mainstream Tamil cinema! The hero doggedly pursuing a woman he hardly knows. She falling for him despite how badly he treats her. 96, in sharp contrast, is really just the two of them talking and catching up. Their slight change in expression as small revelations are made, what ifs are explored - there's a lovely scene in a cafe when Janaki narrates a story that she made up for the sake of an eager, unexpected audience and the ache in Ram's face as he listens to her goes straight into your heart.
There are a few moments of drama - one where she runs down a hotel corridor, and he, like Prince Charming finds his Cinderella again, with the shoes she has left behind - but these appear organically, rising and falling very convincingly. Janaki, in fact, anticipates the kind of drama that the audience might be expecting, plays it up, and then deflates it wonderfully. What to say about Govind Vasantha's music? Adjectives like 'soul-stirring' do not do it justice. The score comes and goes, much like the music that runs in our minds in bits and pieces, lifting the film to a beauty that's hard to describe.
96 is both about moving on and staying exactly where you are. Most of us can choose only one of the two. If you heard the story without watching it, you may conclude that Ram is a loser and Janaki is better off without him. What sort of man puts his life on hold over a teen romance? What sort of woman would risk her present life over a hazy past? But when you see it unravel on screen, through its minutiae, you know that life seldom offers such convenient solutions. That sometimes, you can move on and yet stay exactly where you are because that's the only way you can continue to draw your breath.