My dearest friend Ami and I are sitting together on the couch, nursing our glasses of wine, listening to the song ‘Life of Ram’ from the Tamil movie 96. We have watched the video far too many and never cease to stop feeling awed by it. Ram is a photographer exploring the world with his lens as he dives into the sea and marvels at colorful fish, hangs off a tree like a content monkey, stands in a desert storm, sits by the spray of a waterfall in a state of absolute submission. And he does it all by himself. I defy anyone to hear this song, understand the words and not want to run away from their mundane lives to discover secrets on their own.
It was this song that made me watch 96. I find it difficult to explain what the movie is about because it is a piece of art you must experience to create your own meaning but the writer in me is itching too much so here I am.
The story is about a boy (Ram) and a girl (Janu) who are in the same class in high school. Puppy love blossoms between them but before they can discover how much more they could have been, Ram leaves suddenly. Two decades later they meet at a school re-union and spend a night wandering the city together and talking till the moment they must part again. And it is this night we witness, playing out slowly with flashbacks of their younger selves.
Nothing much happens in 96. There is a lot of conversation, heartrending music (original and featured Ilaiyaraja’s classics), and perfectly orchestrated silences. Vijay Sethupathy and Trisha deliver stunning performances as two people enmeshed in nostalgia who ache for the little time they have. There is the restraint that builds the tension and makes us, the audience, feel the pain of an unfinished story.
Ram is as decent a man as we’ll ever find on screen; an exception to the heroes we’ve been fed with for far too long, men whose arrogance and irritating persistence makes them ‘desirable’ to women who ‘don’t know what they want’. Both teen and adult Ram look at Janu the same way, with reverence and respect. While she is bold and steady, he stutters before her and palpitates at her touch.
They escape from the circle of concerned friends who fear possible indulgences in infidelity. It is a logical fear because our perspectives have always been framed with rules that dictate how we behave in platonic versus romantic relationships. But Ram and Janu have their own realm of trust and adoration, where there is no lust and only a sacrosanct bond. They show us what it means to love and not be in love, a relationship without romance in its conventional form, but marked by care and kindness.
As they talk, they discover what went wrong and how a simple mistake broke the future they could have had together as lovers. Sitting on the floor of her hotel room, they contemplate this realization. She is married and with a child and he is the virgin who cannot move past his love for her. But what can you do when fate takes you away from a destiny you deserve?
Acts of intimacy play out in remarkably subtle ways. When they first meet at the re-union and are sitting with their friends, Janu hands over her plate with some of her leftover food to Ram and he eats it slowly and with gratitude. In school when she sings in class, despite them being in a crowded classroom they form their own own bubble of mellifluous wonder for each other. And then there’s the scene where I melted into a puddle when they are on the way to the airport and Janu places her hand on the gearbox so that he can hold it while driving.
What can I say about the music that hasn’t already been said before? Firstly, all the songs that Janu sings will resurrect that dormant love for Ilaiyaraja’s mastery; the apt verses from his work have been interspersed so respectfully into the film.As far as the original soundtrack goes, ‘Life of Ram’ is the odd song in the soundtrack; the remaining ones are tinged with a haunting morose feel that tie together themes of night, past and separation. I listen to Yaen when I walk alone in the evenings with the wind cooling my face and a moon shining somewhere. The line ‘Yaen , netrai poottaamal ponaayo’ (Why did you leave the past unlocked) takes my breath away each time. Then the retro guitar notes in Vasantha Kalangal caress bitter regrets that refuse to leave me. And Iravingu Theevai just makes me cry with its line- ‘Is the life I live without you even a life?
There are no surprises and just like we expect, Ram and Janu say goodbye and she leaves him standing alone as she boards a plane back her life. He returns home and tucks the kurta she left behind into a trunk of memories. Maybe he will go back to reveling in his solitude or maybe he will take Janu’s advice and find someone to be with.
I have a penchant for endings that epitomize beautiful sorrow, the happily never afters. It’s why I love films like Lost in Translation, Last Night and even the gut-wrenching Paruthiveeran. They shatter the notion of time by showing how people can make the most with what they have, whether it is months, weeks or just a single night. 96 is a tribute to those who aren’t careful with how they ration their love, who nurse their fractured hearts and move on bravely, who archive tender nights and bittersweet smiles.