“Ulagathula evalavo ponnunga irundhum, naa en sir Jessie ah love pannen?” (There are many women in this world, but why did I love Jessie, Sir?), asked Karthik (Simbu) in Vinnaithandi Varuvaya in 2010. It soon became the most referenced dialogue by the Tamil audience when it came to expressing love.
For almost eight years after Gautham Vasudev Menon’s VTV, there was a dearth of love stories in Tamil and with 96 that has finally changed. The audience now has a new character to fall in love with, that of Janu. This happens yet again, with a role played by Trisha, written and performed equally well. While Karthik’s Jessie has a cult status, the film was in a more commercial setup. However, 96’s Janu is unconventional, deglamourised and fills our heart with emotions.
Since the early 2000s, we have seen Trisha in plenty of entertainers, romantic comedies and other genres across Telugu, Tamil and most recently even Malayalam. Varsham Shailaja springs to our mind every time ‘Innallaku gurtochana vana’ plays. This was followed by varied roles in films like Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana, Aadavari Matalaku Arthale Verule, Abhiyum Naanum and an edgy, negative role in the 2016 Kodi. While most of these roles were not that of a heroine being used as a mere prop, many of her other commercial films proved to be otherwise. A lot of good roles too were overshadowed by the hero.
However, until 96 happened, if the audience from across all languages had to pick their favourite role of Trisha’s, it would have been Jessie without a doubt.
Janu - she is an extrovert, the star of the class, the one who leaves you smitten, but yet a grounded force. Janu surely dominates Ram with the liberty she has with him, but at the same time, she is the emotional girl-next-door, craving for that familiar love. Trisha wins our heart, dressed for almost the entire film in a simple yellow kurta and jeans with a casually draped dupatta. Nothing more, nothing less.
For anyone who has watched the beautiful saga that 96 is, you’d realise that you walk out with more than one aspect echoing on your mind. While Govind Vasantha’s music haunts you for long hours, especially after witnessing the scenes, Janu and Ram stand still in your imagination. Their gestures, their very realistic dialogues and tears, you carry them home with you. At least, most of us suckers for romance did.
From 2008 till 2018, you would have noticed among avid movie-goers, the Jessie reference. It’s not unusual to hear ‘Jessie madhiri iruke’ (You look like Jessie) delivered as a compliment. Similarly, Janu now gives a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. I am sure a lot of us remembered our school love - that outgoing, chirpy classmate, whom we couldn’t help but admire day after day.
A lot of credit for Janu striking a chord among the Tamil audience also goes to Gowri, the junior lead of the film. S.Janaki, Class 10 wouldn’t have been the same if not for Gowri’s mature portrayal. The many Ilaiyaraaja songs she croons, the lunch box she shares and that ink she splashes, 96 is all about the little things. The little things that the characters indulge in and in turn immensely connect with the audience for whom time stands still.
Vijay Sethupathi as Ram, is definitely an ‘Ambala Natukkata’ like Trisha says he is, and sweeps us off our feet with the way he respects Janu through every frame. He also makes us laugh with his subtle humour. But Ram hugely works for us, because of the aura that Janu creates.
Moments before Trisha as Janu enters on screen, the audience becomes silent. We sit up and there is a weird calm in the air. The actor enters well after the first half has begun, but we have already sunk into the role so much, that the sudden ‘Kaathalae Kaathalae’ tune playing in the background gives us the feels. That’s when we also realise that the character Janu had us at hello. At her very introduction as a schoolgirl and the second time when she walks in with curiosity in her eyes, longing to meet her love 22 years later. We are left numb. For minutes, we are impatiently waiting for Trisha to give life to the aura that Janu has created.
And Janu is not your usual heroine screaming out love, romancing obliviously with her man and so on. The beauty of the character and role itself lies in its simplicity. Trisha as Janu teaches us that love can be expressed even without uttering the three famous words. The actor emotes so well, bringing to the screen many equations, circumstances and the joy and pain of love. Trisha’s role also comes to life because of Chinmayi. Chinmayi gives life to Jaanu with her voice, singing ‘Vasantha Kaalangal’ and many tear-jerking scores to Janu’s every step.
The character takes over our minds as Trisha gets into the skin of the role. For most, watching 96 - a film that is so realistic because of its characters - is a pleasant surprise in an otherwise debatable cinema atmosphere that we dwell in week after week.
We secretly wish Janu’s words, ‘En Janu ah enake thiripu kudthuringe’ (Give me my Janu back – which she wishes Ram had spoken) actually come true. But we also realise that Ram and Janu work because their love is all about letting go. The two are stuck in that school bench in Thanjavur during 1994, but in 2018 they live their own lives, with memories packed in a suitcase.
C.Premkumar’s high school sweethearts story is not an unpredictable one. But it is all about the treatment of roles and the script. With Janu being the pivot of this plot as much as Ram, we also get one of the best female lead roles in Tamil cinema, championed by Trisha. In her career best role, Trisha gets a character who is treated with sensitivity, respect and doesn’t make us cringe even once. The opinion of the woman and her consent in this film are the key.
The actor will remain Janu for a while now as we blissfully sail in the effect that the film has had on many. From the damsel in distress in Ghilli to the face of first love in 96, Trisha also proves that after 15 years of doing films, actors can still move audiences with good content. It only made sense that she dropped out of Saamy Square.
We’ll sure remember Alaipayuthey, O Kadhal Kanmani and other love sagas of our generation, but there’s nothing quite like an unconventional love story translated well on screen with just two characters brilliantly running the show. Jessie then, Janu now, both making us long for love.