C Prem Kumar was in Class 8 when he decided he wanted to enter the film industry. The 96 director grew up in Thanjavur, in a family that loved music and cinema but it was not until he watched Thalapathy that the film bug bit him.
"People in my family were crazy about music and cinema, so I was exposed to all types of films. But it was in Class 8 that I started understanding more about it. Thalapathy starts off in black and white. When you go for a Rajini film, your expectation would be something else, you'd think it'd start off with a blast. But it started off in black and white, someone carried a baby and put it on a train...Then there's a song...The whole film was in a kind of yellow tone. Thalaivar didn't do much style, he was very subtle. I didn't understand anything," he says, with a laugh.
But it was Thalapathy which made him aware of filmmaking as a craft. After the film was over, Prem recalls walking out of the theatre and looking at the poster once again. This time, he memorised the names that appeared below the title – Mani Ratnam (director), Santosh Sivan (cinematographer), Suresh Urs (editor).
"Till then, I used to watch films as just films. It was then that I realised that there are brains behind the actors we watch. My decision was made," he says.
After that, Prem made it a point to watch any film that carried the names of these people in the credits – Roja, Thiruda Thiruda and many more. This led him towards becoming a cinematographer first and then turning director with 96 at the age of 41.
However, Prem did not initially have any plans of making his own film. He wanted to write films, not shoot or direct them.
"I wanted to become a writer. But photography came naturally to me since everyone at home was into such things. My dad had a camera even when I was a child – in fact, his photography is better than mine. But because he was good at studies, he chose some other line. I did Vis.Comm," he says, laughing.
But Prem found that writing wasn't easy.
"It's first difficult to find a guru when you want to become a writer. You don't know what to read, how to learn the basics. My dreams of becoming a writer began to fade away. But I kept writing as a hobby...stories, poems," he says.
However, 96 was the first script that Prem wrote and it came at a time when he was confined to his house for around 20 days, thanks to the devastating Chennai floods of December 2015. The swirling waters meant that he couldn't step outside – he used the time to write by night and sleep by day.
"People generally write a rough draft, then add dialogues. It's a stage-by-stage process. But I started writing with dialogues from the first scene, it came in a flow," he says. "I took my time with the fine-tuning though. It has to work, it's a complicated zone and we need to present it with an emotional connect."
After he narrated the story to Vijay Sethupathy and Trisha, he took a year to improvise on the script.
"I knew that people would be able to relate to this. It's a subject that's close to their heart. Nostalgia reaches everyone. But I didn't expect such a reception," he confesses.
So, where did the idea for 96 come from?
"I belong to the '96 batch and we had a school reunion recently in 2015. I couldn't go for it due to various reasons. I was in a shoot. I asked people what happened during the reunion. I imagined a lot of things...What could happen when old friends meet again. But they told me very ordinary stories. As if it was a parents-teacher meeting," he says.
But there were two people whose stories caught Prem's attention.
"Their present day situation struck me as unusual. It was that which triggered the idea in me – I felt it would be good to weave a story with these two characters. I hadn't even met them..." he trails off.
Prem Kumar has worked with Vijay Sethupathi previously, even before he became the star that he is now.
"I worked with him first in Varnam. By the time Naduvulu Konjam Pakatha Kaanom was made, we were very close friends. We've done many films together after that, like Sundarapandian, Rummy, etc. Even when he was a character artiste, I felt that awe that people feel towards his natural style of acting now, when he's become a star," he says.
When he started writing 96, therefore, it was Vijay Sethupathi who came to his mind automatically.
"People used to clap on sets for him back then when he did a scene, even though he was only doing a character role. So, when I started writing 96, it was his face which came to my mind. Usually, writers imagine themselves or their real life heroes in these roles, the actors come later. But it was this man who came to my mind immediately," he says.
Although Prem Kumar says he's not watched too many films of Trisha's, barring the big hits, she was his first choice to play Jaanu.
"I'd have watched only around five films of hers in the theatre. When I was an upcoming cameraman in the industry, Trisha had already become a heroine. I didn't have the time to watch too many films then...She's a great personality. They're making films with her in the lead now. Maybe I had that affinity that she's a "namba ooru ponnu". I don't know what it is," he says, smiling.
Quashing rumours that Vijay Sethupathi will appear as a 96-year-old man in 96, an exasperated Prem says, "That news is wrong. He's acting as a 70-year-old in Seethakathi. People confused that with this and a rumour was created that he's acting as a 96-year-old in my film. I tried to tell people that this is not true but I've given up now!"
The story of 96 unfolds over a single night, although Vijay Sethupathi will be seen as a middle-aged man briefly. The younger versions of Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha are played by Adityan, actor MS Bhaskar's son (whom Prem says shares a lot of similarities to Vijay Sethupathi in real life), and Gowri (Prem's college classmate's relative).
Heroines in Tamil cinema seldom have anything substantial to do on screen. But the promos of 96 suggest that Trisha has a meaty role to play. How did Prem get into a woman's mind to write her role?
"There are many women around me – my mom, my aunt, my aunt's daughters. I grew up watching these women. I admire them. I've always been awed by how they handle things. I strongly believe they are superior to men. I feel they have many layers. Usually, a male writer will write from a male protagonist's view, but maybe because of this, the story came to me through the Jaanu character," he says.
Prem feels that these layers to women characters have remained under-explored in films.
"It's not that I wrote this film to make that point. But while writing, I could feel that this was new – looking at things from their point of view, their hidden emotions, things they don't talk about openly. It sounded true to the story," he adds.
Trisha's look for the film was carefully tailored, from her clothes to the size of her pottu and hair parting.
"I wanted her to remind people of someone they've seen in real life. She was very supportive of this. When we went to decide on the costume for her, she said let's keep this as a normal dress, there's no need to make it filmy. I was very grateful for that," he says.
The music of 96
The craze for 96 started with the 'Kadhaley Kadhaley' song that appears in the teaser of the film. And now, the album which was recently released has also become a big hit.
Speaking of his association with composer Govind Vasantha, Prem says, "Govind is my friend. He'd come as a keyboard programmer in Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom. But he happened to do all the background music for the film because the composer was busy. It was so impressive. We used to say Govind gets the first rank for all films – he'd come in the last minute and score! Everyone would mention his work first," he says.
Commenting on Govind's brand of music, Prem says that the composer is remarkably original and free of influences.
"When people are in a certain art, they get this arrogance from somewhere, especially in cinema. It becomes very difficult to work with them. But Govind doesn't have that at all. You can say whatever nonsense you want to him – I have a great comfort zone with him. You can get music for any emotion from him and it'd be so true," he says.
So, what does Prem Kumar want his audience to take away from 96?
"Nostalgia. Memories. When we want to narrate something exciting from our lives, we don't talk about what happened yesterday or even last year. We go back ten years in time...Childhood, or something that happened in our growing up years. Our glorious moments are in the past. You may not have thought so when it was happening to you then, but when something becomes part of your memories, it becomes glorified. So, I want people to think of their own past, their love lives...And I want them to think about what love is – we keep giving it different shapes, according to different scenarios. But love is love only when we accept it as it is...Without painting on it," he signs off.