Fifteen minutes into the film 96, 37-year-old K Ramachandran (Vijay Sethupathi) stands in front of the gates to his high school in Tanjore. The background music is toned down and the wind blows harder as he strides forward with joy. Until suddenly, he stops. These few seconds of hesitation is the last chance that director Premkumar gives you to brace yourself for the storm of emotions that he will unleash upon you, before the gates of the past are opened.
The journey that follows will break your hearts a hundred times over, leaving you alternately comforted and pained as nostalgia washes over. The premise of the film is deceptively simple – two high school sweethearts from the batch of 1996 (which lends the movie’s title) meet at a reunion, 22 years after they part. Vijay Sethupathi is a travel photographer and Trisha, who plays Janaki Devi aka Jaanu, is settled in Singapore. The film however, fails to tell us if she actually has a job. Understandably, the sparks are still present and visible for all to see. The story moves back and forth from the past to the present, to lay the foundation for this love story, even as it takes you on a parallel journey of events unfolding in the reunion.
But that is where the movie’s predictability ends. Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha share a chemistry that crackles to life on screen. The only competition to their compelling presence are the artists who play their younger selves – Aditya Bhaskar and Gauri Kishan. You can’t help but root for the pair (past and present), from the minute you lay your eyes on them.
But while the sweet high school romance reminds you of the familiar ache of love and loss, the modern day story struggles to blossom with the restrictions that come with the gap of over 20 years in their relationship. The movie, at several junctures, puts its viewers in a moral dilemma, making you question if what you are rooting for is correct. But the director plays it safe for the most part, leaving you completely responsible for the answer.
Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha have delivered flawless performances with their understated acting. They feed off each other’s energy and leave you wanting for more.
The film’s screenplay is gripping. It has you on the edge of your seat for what are seemingly the most inane activities – school attendance, conversations over coffee and even a ride in the metro. The personal growth and contrasting personalities of Ramachandran and Jaanu are showcased through humour. Like when Jaanu asks Ram if he is still a virgin (to hilarious results) to Ram berating a group of female college students for being out at 10 pm (sexist much?).
The narrative that goes back and forth doesn’t falter for even a minute as it seamlessly connects the past to the present. A light moment is suddenly succeeded by a high octane emotional scene and before you recover, the director is already moving forward to the next plot point. You simply cannot take your eyes off the screen. Except when it is filled with tears (which is quite often) and you don’t have much of a choice!
The cinematography by Mahendiran Jeyaraju and N Shanmuga Sundaram must receive special mention. For the first 20 minutes of the film, Vijay Sethupathi is seen alone, the only focus of large beautiful frames in scenic locations. Through mere images they paint the picture of a loner, a man who prefers his own company. That is until he is connected to his school friends again. From that minute, the frame is either filled with friends or past flame. The frames evolve with the story.
The film’s music by Govind Vasantha has already received much acclaim and the smattering of Ilaiyaraja’s songs across the film lend to an engaging auditory treat. But what I would like to mention is the use of silence in the film. The tension created by the screenplay is escalated by the beautiful use of silence through the two hours and forty minutes. When his friends say ‘Jaanu’ to Vijay Sethupathi for the first time in the film, the silence that the music director uses tells a story by itself.
A silence in which you hear not only the hero’s heart beat loudly but yours too, as it cracks a little.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.