‘96 Review: Of Aching Nostalgia and Pregnant Silences
‘96 is a love story starring Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan
‘96 is a love story starring Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Review: ‘96 Review: Of Aching Nostalgia and Pregnant Silences

‘96, starring Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan is the story of a day and a night, across the span of which two young lovers catch up after 22 years of being apart. The film is directed by C Prem Kumar who was the cinematographer of the cult hit Naduvula Koncham Pakatha Kaanom. But the movie is as much Prem Kumar’s as it is cinematographer Mahendran Jeyaraju’s, thanks to the minimal dialogue and pregnant silences.

The makers offer special thanks to Ilayaraja, who DIDN’t compose music for the film. Here’s why.

Music and It’s Brilliant Use

Music is to ‘96 what sound is to a horror film. Every slight inflection in the actors’ faces, triggered by inexplicable feelings, is cued beautifully through a stray note on the piano or the violin’s sudden serenade. If 2017’s Baby Driver was a masterpiece in overt use of music in the edit of the film, ‘96 is the understudy. And then there are the silences. The music is intermittent, poignant and never overpowers the natural sounds of the scene.

There is no dialogue in the first seven minutes of the film. It’s a series of breathtaking locations, with no one but Vijay Sethupathi in the frame. And his camera.

(Note: The absence of the usual screenshots of a frame, followed by the ‘khichak’ sound of the camera clicking, to denote the photographer taking the picture, is a huge relief.)

The portions of the film that are set in 1996 (hence the title) heavily feature Ilayaraja’s songs, playing in the background, on TV sets or on radio, or being sung by one of the students. Prem Kumar establishes upfront that it’s impossible to revisit the 90s without Ilayaraja.

The covers of the maestro’s songs are beautiful hat tips.

That Familiar Ache

‘96 recreates nostalgia in every frame.
‘96 recreates nostalgia in every frame.
(Photo: YouTube / ThinkMusic)
Chalk Dust / Camlin Gum / FLAMES / Ilayaraja / Sartaj Razer Blade / Digital Watch / Doordarshan / Dianora / Pepsi Ice / Cycle Chain Undone / Red Badam Fruit / Bril Ink

It is in recreating the school days of Ram and Janu of the ‘96 batch that the minds, hearts and memories of director Prem Kumar and cinematographer Mahendran coalesce into one. There are no sepia tones or scratchy film effects. The flashbacks aren’t warmer to look at than the present. And yet, the time travel happens effortlessly, thanks to the little details in every scene.

The stray floppy drive, the clusters of flowers adorning either sides of the double braids of the school girls, the fidgeting and pinching that are natural extension of classmate camaraderie; all of these come together in scenes that are not recreated in studios or elaborate sets, but in actual locations.

The school is real, the hotel and the resort are real, and every place the leads go to, or the story takes you to, are real. To paraphrase Louis L’Amour - If I write about a hill stream, it is because it is there, and the water is good to drink.

And so all that the director had to do, was to pay attention to the surroundings, and listen to his memories.

‘96 tugs at all of your senses - the sight of random objects long lost, the smell of fresh rain and school shirts, the touch of the cycle brake, the sound of the school bell and the cycle chain, and the taste of curd rice with pickle. 

The John Wick of Tamil Romance

John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves is now into its second instalment and there will likely be a third, thanks to its roaring success. But that’s not why it’s relevant here. John Wick transformed the way Hollywood does action films.

Directed by two of the stuntmen who had worked on the Matrix Trilogy (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch), the action scenes are all about long takes shot in wide and mid-range angles, fully revealing the hero’s weaknesses as a fighter. Brilliantly choreographed and practised for months, the shoot-outs are a ballet of head-shots and gore.

‘96 has very well changed Tamil romance for good, thanks to its high dependence on music and realism in conveying nostalgia.

Top-Notch Performances

The leads of both ages delivered stellar stuff.
The leads of both ages delivered stellar stuff.
(Photo: YouTube / Think Music India)

Vijay Sethupathi is the poster boy of the short-film circuit in Tamil Cinema. He is the best and the first of the lot to make it big in mainstream cinema. Trisha Krishnan has been on top of her game for almost twenty years. They have each carried movies on their respective shoulders with ease.

But Aadithya Baaskar, and Gouri G Kishan as Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha’s younger selves were brilliant debutantes. They acted their age of course, but also conveyed much of the subtlety in the love and longing that they share, with almost no dialogue. And that is no mean feat.

Devadarshini and Bagavathi Perumal, the inseparable classmates (in adult form) were brilliant. They were missed occasionally, once the movie became ONLY about the love birds. In a sense, it was these two who helps the audience perceive the leads as their younger selves.

For a movie with such emotional depth, so much devoted only to two people talking, and prolonged silences, ‘96 moves on like a gentle night breeze, with no warm spells. 

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