Kamal Haasan once presided over a debate where the topic was, art house pictures vs. commercial cinema. His verdict was, “Artistically made commercial cinema is what will endure.” His judgment could be summed up in one number – 96! ‘96 takes place during the course of a night, focusing on a man (Vijay Sethupathi) and woman (Trisha Krishnan) who, partly owing to choices and largely due to destiny, took different paths in life and are meeting after two decades at a high-school reunion. What happens during the course of that one night is the crux of this tale, lovingly brought to screen - and to life - by writer and director Prem Kumar.
For a first-time director, Prem Kumar comes across as a filmmaker completely assured of himself and his command over the medium. This is a beautifully photographed movie - the unobtrusively lovely work is by Mahendran Jayaraju and Shanmuga Sundaram. Simple shots like the school kid driving a cycle across a puddle of water are aesthetically done. And the close-ups of the lead pair capture every minute change in expression. Every choice of lighting is tasteful yet purposeful – a case in point, the use of the flashlight in the power cut sequence. The tools that the director utilizes to bring the 90s to life too, are not flashy, yet make us smile– a floppy disk in the hands of a Computer Science student, a student singing a snatch of “Thendral Vandhu Theendum…” Govind Vasantha's exquisite score ("Kathale Kathale..." is a haunting melody) too fits the mood of several scenes in an undemonstrative yet impactful manner.
In addition to being an aesthete, Prem Kumar is also a masterful storyteller. He knows exactly when to cut away to the school portions. Every flashback reveals a little facet of a character or chips away at a plot point. He has a couple of recurring elements such as the hands-on-the-chest gesture or the craving for the “Yamunai Aatrile…” song that have sweet, little arcs of their own. But to me, the pinnacle of his writing skill is the college sequence, which plays in two versions. It is so splendidly written that it leaves a lump in the throat by the end of the second version. There are subtle touches (like the way a young Vijay Sethupathi asks the name of a supporting character) that make the two versions distinct. The two versions say pretty much what needs to be said about fate and how seemingly little choices seem monumental in hindsight.
If the cinematography of the movie is the eye and the writing the brain, the actors are the heart and soul of ‘96. Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha, individually and as a pair, well and truly make the movie. This role is a breeze for the former, who uses his casual body language and undemonstrative dialogue delivery to full effect to bring to life a man who is stuck in a time warp. This is Trisha’s finest work yet. She imbues her character with immense warmth. Of course, the writing plays a part in shaping her performance. (Chinmayi’s voice work is pitch-perfect too.) But the actress is wonderful here – be it sobbing her heart out in the bathroom or smiling impishly while asking if Vijay is a virgin, she is as ‘alive’ as I have ever seen her. She also does something nuanced – she underplays the parts where she playfully lords it over Vijay Sethupathi. There is a refreshing casualness in the way, for instance, she squats on the floor and asks him to sit closer. Or the way she insists on a clean-shaven appearance. This dynamic does wonders for their chemistry. The duo goes into top gear in the concluding portions, working perfectly with one another, knowing exactly when to cede the spotlight to the other. If Trisha sparkles in the restaurant scene, Vijay Sethupathi is brilliant with the monologue that he delivers about attending a wedding. Devadarshini and Bagavathi PerumaL have delightful cameos. But the movie, especially the second half, belongs really to the lead pair and they lift it to great heights.
It is very rare that acting, writing and filmmaking all cohere as well as they do in ‘96. It is a testament to Prem Kumar’s thoughtfulness and taste that ‘96 comes across as a film that is not only pleasing to the eye but also tugs at our heartstrings, lingering long after the end credits roll. This is the type of cinema that endures. This is the kind of cinema that a certain Mr. Kamal Haasan will especially be proud of!