I like reading comments to actors’ Twitter posts from fans or sometimes things that the actors themselves retweet. There’s a lot of insight to be had from fans that others miss. I found one on Trisha that captures the spirit of 96 and its leading woman Jaanu. It said something to the effect of, “Your entry had the biggest hype for a heroine in a non-heroine centric film.” Indeed, all over Twitter are short clips of audience’s reactions to Trisha’s slow amble on the screen finally.
C Prem Kumar’s version of ‘mass entry’ for his woman is all class. In the beginning of the film, one of Ram’s (the inimitable Vijay Sethupathi) female students, takes over the wheels and drives him back home, as he sleeps. It appears that she’s nursing a crush on her photography mentor. But his heart is elsewhere. Always has been.
In the flashback scenes of the film, Prem Kumar showcases adolescent affections between young Ram (the brilliant Aditya Bhaskar) and Jaanu (a fantastic Gouri G Kishan) in a crisp manner, laced with humour and Ilaiyaraaja ditties, that is neither cringey nor over-the-top. Even then, she’s got spunk. He’s got palpitations whenever he has to make conversations with her. He wants her to sing Yamunai Aatrile (she specialises in Raja songs) but cannot bring himself to ask. She knows what he wants but she won’t sing unless he asks. It all builds up to a fantastic moment later on.
A married Janaki (named after the yesteryear playback singer) waltzes into the frame alone, carrying her bags, for a reunion with the class of 96 from Singapore. The music soars and everyone is happy to see her. Soon the very talented Devadarshini (who I had said was woefully underused in our cinema in this column after seeing her in the Telugu film Awe), who plays Ram and Jaanu’s friend says, her voice curling backward, ‘Illa Ram vandhirukaan’ (Ram has come here), at which point Trisha delivers the best moment in the film. Just the way Devadarshini says Ram is here, has already conveyed to the audience that there’s a reluctance there, because of course she’s married and we know he’s single. We’ve seen him roam the world on work. At this point, the camera focuses right onto Trisha’s face, as she draws a deep breath, and her eyes convey a multitude of emotions. It made me gasp.
Jaanu is unlike any Tamil heroine in recent memory. This is Prem Kumar gently but firmly pushing the boundaries of what the Tamil married woman can and will say on screen. He even manages to make light of the mighty ‘thaali sentiment’ with Ram suddenly seeing it, in his home, and mock praying to it. For a while Devadarshini and Bagavathi (who also plays the lead’s friend) actually guide the audience’s reaction towards this couple. When Devadarshini is scandalised, we are, when she’s worriedly asking ‘nothing wrong will come of this right?’, we too are wondering where this is going. She is married, yes. She has a kid, yes. Is she happy? She is peaceful. So that’s that. Has she forgotten him? No. Does she hide all those years of yearnings from him because married women are to behave a certain way on screen? No. She pours her heart out. And quietly he too does. (Is Ram, Tamil cinema’s least toxic masculine presence?) She also, in the most uncharacteristic way for such a woman, asks him, “Virgin a da nee?”
This deep yearning, love for a past lover that never goes away, this chance encounter – all of this plays out beautifully in 96, reminding me all along of Haruki Murakami’s works, especially South of the Border, West of the Sun. This is a beautiful film on unrequited love. As the film ended, I wondered just what Jaanu would do, after spending all that time walking around with this man she has built up in her head for 22 years. Would she go for a hug? That would be so filmy. Would she just say bye and walk away? Will she choose to stay? In her final gesture too, even as tears stream down her face, Prem Kumar’s deft touch is seen. The audience walked out applauding.
(The writer is a city-based journalist and editor)
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema