Love is one emotion that transcends borders, races, religions and even time. It is also the most celebrated emotion of all, for it changes people’s lives or so they say. Romeo and Juliet is almost 5 centuries old and yet, we find storytellers fascinated by the idea of recreating its magic and the audience willing to experience it, all over again. Creating yet another love story after thousands of them have been told is a risk as you could easily succumb to the formulaic treatment. To be able to tell a story about love, as if it was the only love story in the world, is an art not many have mastered. C. Prem Kumar is one of those rare filmmakers who have been able to imbue originality and genuine feeling into a love story.
’96 Movie clearly is a very personal story. The treatment of the screenplay and the screenplay itself have a gentleness to them that is seldom seen in Indian cinema. The film plays out in Present and the Past. The film starts with a middle-aged man visiting his school and greeting all the memories that have been etched into the benches, trees and the walls of the school. In an endearing scene, he sits with the watchman of the school, eating a fruit they just plucked from a tree and reminiscing the days at School. A phone call to an old friend finally results in a grand reunion of the ’96 school batch, more importantly Ram and Janaki meet, after 22 years of separation.
It is here that the screenplay cuts to the actual love story of two teenagers, who get separated due to unforseen family situations. These flashback portions have a terrific cast playing the younger versions of Ram and Janaki, who are played by Vijay Setupati and Trisha in the present. Although the actors are different, the connect never goes missing. You are convinced that they are the same couple despite looking entirely different in a span of a cut. You cut from a 15 year old boys, unassuming face to a bearded salt and pepper look of Vijay Setupati, but the emotion and the character transcends seamlessly. This is where the superb writing needs to be credited for writing characters that are fully realized and peculiar. A beautiful phantom thread runs through the film, which keeps you inline with the emotional graphs of the characters, despite the jump from Present to Past and vice versa.
The screenplay does a beautiful job of dressing a one night meeting as a life journey. Ram and Janaki travel by car, on foot, they board a metro and finally end their journey at an airport. Their relationship also gets more personal with every step. They first meet in a gathering of friends, then the friend circle is cut-down as they stop at a restaurant to eat with only three other friends. Then they both end up in Janaki’s hotel room and eventually they are sitting in the warmth of Ram’s house, as Janaki sings Ram’s favourite song. The change of location from a gathering to a restaurant to a hotel room to home, shows the increasing comfort level between the two as they come temptingly close to start a relationship.
’96 Movie does not intend to manipulate you with the plight of the couple in love. It asks you to empathize with their pain but also acknowledges the fact of separation. The maturity in the writing is evident in the characterization of Ram and Janaki. The writers and Vijay Setupati are brave enough to make Ram a relatively meek, shy man who is in love, who fumbles, sweats and faints when the woman he loves stands infront of him. It is Janaki who helps him open up and share his feelings. Traditionally, Indian cinema has seen a female character as someone who would be unsure about confiding about her feelings but Janaki, both as a teenage girl and a woman is comfortable with the feeling she is experiencing and embraces it, unlike an extremely hesitant Ram. It is refreshing to see this dynamic between two lovers.
A poignant film with memorable characters and music that only adds to the magic of the film; ‘96 is a rare achievement that tugs at your heart strings without ever trying to be dramatic. The simplicity and the honesty of the film make it an instant classic.