Depending on one's sensibility, young love can fall on two sides of a coin - on one side is the notion that young love and its depiction is usually an extra saccharine dose of cheesy and manufactured artifice - the land of hallmark gift cards. On the other side is the depiction that is based on staunch belief in unadulterated emotions and the transformative powers that love brings forth. With its premise and storyline, " '96 " could have easily fallen prey to the former but it vehemently endeavors to be an exercise in the latter.
Childhood friends Ram and Jaanu go to the same high school. Over time, Ram realizes he has fallen for Jaanu, she has an inkling of this, and reciprocates the feeling in silence. But Jaanu is not one for sitting in anticipation, so she confronts Ram about his awkwardness around her. As she lays her hand on his chest amidst this conversation, Ram diligently faints away. '96 is the kind of film that believes that, had Ram met Jaanu 20 years later, he would still have the same reaction when she touches him. And he does. But the beauty of the film is in how it convinces us to chuckle heartily at this later reaction, not cringe at it.
" '96 " is this unabashed fanfare of young love and it's several consequential phenomena - separation, grief, loss, redemption, revival, hope, and romance. There is a Scorsese style fast zoom shot onto either protagonist's face when they get to know their lover is at (or is going to be at) the same 20 year high school reunion party. The frame is frozen - their feelings are punched forth. Writer - Director C. Prem Kumar clearly indicates where he is going with the film early on - and then he makes even the most aloof viewer shed any skepticism and start championing the movie, its characters, and the treatment.
But the film is more of a duet between the director and its composer, Govind Vasantha. It is almost as if the screenplay and the score were planned out in unison, on a multi-layered storyboard. The soundtrack is soaring in nature, accentuating every specific emotion with a suitably strong lyrical piece (verses by Karthik Netha and Uma Devi; ace material all around). "Life of Ram" talks about reaching the shores, yet wanting to be in the ocean, or a past life. (On a sidebar, I might go on a limb here and say Pradeep Kumar was born to sing this song). "Vasantha Kaalangal" is all about the good times slipping away while one watches helplessly.
What also fascinated me is how every song (and every background score piece) fits perfectly into the narrative; nothing gets cut short, and there is no abrupt transition. "Thabangale" has an almost minute long guitar interlude while Ram and Jaanu take a long lost walk on the streets of Chennai. The dreamy "Kaadhalae Kaadhalae" accompanies a suitably ethereal scene. I've always believed Indian cinema has a trick when it comes to musicals that foreign cinema has quite not mastered and this film proves that.
Back to the high school reunion, to the moment when someone mentions to Jaanu that Ram is at the party - Trisha Krishnan embodies the reaction as if she has lived that exact moment - her eyes glittery with anticipation. At a later point in the film, Jaanu teases Ram if he has had other girlfriends. Vijay Sethupathy turns to the side with a shy grin and is out of focus on the frame. Yet, one can see clearly the subtle detail he puts into his characters - how his underplaying technique is a mask for the care he has for them.
(Minor spoilers ahead)
As mentioned earlier, how a love story is treated is a matter of sensibility, and so is how it ends. " '96 " takes on a note that I disagree with - a sombre one with grief about Ram and Jaanu's ultimate separation. I would have liked to see them go their separate ways having emerged stronger and with the notion that they could cherish the bittersweet thing that their relationship was, not remain in despair. As Rick says to Ilsa at the end of "Casablanca" - "We'll always have Paris".
" '96 " is out in theaters now.
Atlantic City says so much about two people in a relationship, without saying too much.
A comedy that is fun, while being just good cinema in the first place.