96 is a bittersweet amalgamation of the ‘BEFORE‘ series – chiefly ‘BEFORE SUNSET‘— by Linklater, beautifully mapped onto the Indian landscape by contouring out the emotional crests and troughs of childhood love, its extensions, and its sustenance. It is a triumph for one of the most interesting actors to emerge out on the Tamil screens, Vijay Sethupathi, who brings his own brand of ‘casualness’ to his act, yet segues it – mainly in the second-half – into a fine act embodying a character who pretends to be living in the ‘moment’ but is really living in the past savoring moments of first love which are, obviously, momentous to him. [In fact, the film opens with a song ‘The Life of Ram’, with the lyrics and visuals expounding on the loneliness that’s part of Ram’s existential crises, as well as the thread he hangs onto to continue his existence. It shows him living life as a travel photographer, but travelling alone, and seemingly enjoying the independence—(he pulls a cart for an old man in Calcutta; drives in circles in his car onto a vast, open field; sits staring at the horizon on a beach, and runs on sand-dunes in Rajasthan, while the lyrics convey his feelings that he hasn’t understood the world yet though his hair has greyed..)— that a relationship-less existence provides, but that’s actually a facade.] There’s a nod here to Ranbir’s characters from Ali’s films portraying his alone-self in a populated world that’s hard to miss.
Sethupathi plays Ram, a guy perennially living in denial and unable to come to terms that his love toward Janaki (Trisha) couldn’t fructify into a relationship. She’s peacefully—her term—married to a nice guy in Singapore, and has a kid that looks just like her. They meet at a WhatsApp-initiated reunion and wander into a night of conversation where they ‘learn’ more about each other than they knew during their growing-up years in Thanjavur. [Interestingly, the reunion is sowed by none other than Ram himself, quite contrary to his nature: When his student acting as a driver takes a detour via Thanjavur, and he shows her the ‘spots’ that meant/mean something to him since it’s his home-town, he also instructs her not to stop anywhere since he might have to talk with someone from his past.] In essence, that’s what the film is about, where one night erupts into a silent volcano of buried emotions conveyed through conversations, and more so, through the silences between the lead pair.
The first half shows the blossoming love in school between a fantastic Gouri Kishan’s Janaki and a fine Adithya Bhaskar’s Ram. They are in love, but he is forever hesitant—is that some inferiority complex, or his default nature, one never knows— in expressing his love through words; it’s all only gestures, wistful emotions and simple actions – opening her tight-fit lunch-box; requesting her to sing a particular song through his friend, etc., etc. The innocence of a feeling as strong as love is conveyed through such small acts; that’s the ‘love’ of childhood and teenage – these actions might seem trivial when seen from the prism of life at a later age, but at that young age, and with the world still being ‘small’ and with limited ‘muddling’ of experience, it is as good as any action that a ‘corrupted’-with-experience person might display as a symbol of his/her love: As I said before, these might be just moments to most later, but it was/will remain momentous to many within that context.
The film springs into life in the second half – which many might disagree with – and the performances and the conversations soar the movie to fantastic heights. She takes him to a saloon and gets him to drop his beard and colour his hair, he shows her all the nostalgic memorabilia that he has still retained of her; an ink-stained shirt, her dupatta, a poem he wrote. He tells her all about her, in fact, her life after school, the marks she scored, the days she got sick right before exams, and shockingly, that he was present in her marriage function, and from a distance, watched her, and left: He couldn’t stay to watch her tie the knot. And this, after she reveals to him that she wished even when she was getting married to someone else that he could come and elope with her. There are what-if scenarios and what one expected; she hopes he had come to meet her in college bravely and with gusto, not being a ‘nice’, timid guy. She wishes she had seen him, he doesn’t know she hadn’t seen him; these scenes are beautifully shot.
There are some very effectively used and beautifully shot scenes. As they embark on their nightly conversational sojourn, they board a train randomly and briefly, they see the airport as the train moves along, and they know that their journey would be over in a couple more hours, that this proximity is temporary, and it is heart-breaking to them, more so to Janaki. She is doubly troubled than him, and there’s some sense of, maybe, guilty conscience in her since she knew his introverted nature, and perhaps she could have taken the charge; she hence says on the balcony that she wants him to get married, wants to have kids, but more importantly, she wants to know that he’s done all this. He sleeps on the floor in his apartment, she calls him up on the bed because she knows even the trio of Rambha, Urvashi, or Menaka, together, cannot get him to give-up his celibacy.
The background score and the sound-track are beautifully used to accentuate the emotions, and the lyrics convey both the emotional landscape yonder and the feelings at-that-point-in-time excellently. There’s a line that expresses Trisha’s emotional infidelity, loosely translated as, ‘Shall I bask in the moon of your love tonight, only to be cheated at the dawn of light?’ The stand-out song, ‘Anthati’ refers to a form of poetry in the Tamil language where the last word of one verse becomes the first word of the following verse.
As I walked out, I couldn’t but help my mind get ‘corrupted’ with the #movements going on, and for a few moments, did let that corruption get the better of me. What about him flicking her dupatta and keeping it? What about him showing up at her marriage uninvited? [Great nod to the ever-green DIL SE and that heart-wringing moment when Manisha shows up at SRK’s engagement ceremony.] What about him keeping track of all her activities and a timetable of when she got sick or flunked her exams? Are these emotions ‘sick’ now, in today’s cultural climate? What is right? What is wrong?
I then decided to keep that disgusting prose out of this poetry on unrequited love and heartbreak/s and walked back.
The writer doesn’t understand the language except for NALLA IRUKA and SAAPADIYA, and isn’t interested in understanding LOOSU PONNU.