96 director on working with Vijay Sethupathi, Trisha, upcoming Telugu remake of film and its potential sequel
Director Prem Kumar on 96: 'The love between Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha's characters is beyond physical intimacy'
Director Prem Kumar always dreamt of becoming a writer in Tamil cinema but as the industry doesn’t spend much on its writers, he chose cinematography which is his second love. “Even as a child, I had special love for writing but writers here don’t get good pay. Moreover, I myself wasn’t sure about my writing skills so I chose photography," says Prem who started his career as a wildlife photographer before foraying into the film industry.
Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi plays a travel photographer in Prem's new film, 96. “I assigned the travel photographer profession to my protagonist for multiple reasons. Firstly, I wrote Ramachandran (Vijay Sethupathi) as a person who lives his life to the fullest and doesn’t think much about the materialistic life. Being a photographer, he can capture moments and in fact, he lives with his past memories. Also, I always envied travel photographers because they can visit different places unlike others," says Prem.
In the first draft, Prem named Vijay Sethupathi as Vinoth and Trisha as Janani but later his friend Balaji (director of Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom) said that the script of 96 has an interesting connect with the relationship between Lord Rama and Sita in Ramayana. Balaji apparently told Prem that in Ramayana, there is no major moment to describe the love between Ram and Sita but the whole story is based on the problems faced by them.
“Yes, it was only because of Balaji, I changed the names of my characters as Ram and Janaki (another name for Sita)," accepts the director who also has valid reasons for the names Vinoth and Janu. “Vinoth means a person who wants to be different whereas Janu aka Janani means life but I found Balaji’s reason to be valid so, I changed the names of my protagonists to Ram and Janaki," he says with a smile.
In 96, veteran singer Janaki’s songs played a crucial role in taking the story forward. So why Prem chose Janaki when there are many notable singers in Tamil cinema? “I think Janaki amma is unmatchable because she made her debut even before my birth. I’m 41 years old now and recently, she sang in Velai Illa Pattadhari. Janaki amma has been in our lives for more than sixty years and there is no match for her in any music industry," reveals Prem.
Vijay Sethupathi’s home in the film is beautifully designed with antique collections and Prem remarks he wanted Ram's apartment look that way for a reason. “Ram is someone who likes to lead his life with past memories. People like him don’t like modern gadgets; they preserve antique items and for them, old gadgets and furniture are like precious gems," says Prem. In fact, there is a scene where Vijay shows things which he preserved from school days in Trisha's memory.
Generally, romantic films are known for intimate scenes and ego trips between the lead characters but 96 is devoid of all these cliches. Moreover, Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha don’t even touch each other and this dignified romance is actually working big time among the audiences.
“The dignified romance is not a deliberate attempt. Had I been born in Delhi, Bangalore or Mumbai, I would have been a guy who regularly goes to pubs and my writing would have that reflection. In my place, I only saw women who are like Janaki and treated them exactly like how Vijay Sethupathi handles Trisha in the film. Also, the situation of the characters demands such a dignified romance. I’m not against intimacy between lovers in films but here, Trisha is married and Vijay is still an unmarried guy, how can I even think of intimacy? I felt this is how many other true lovers would behave and hence, wrote it in that way. The love between Ram and Janu is beyond physical intimacy," says Prem.
In 96, Vijay Sethupathi is an introvert and submits himself to Trisha so much so that he even shivers when she touches him. “Generally, Vijay Sethupathi is a confident and bold guy which often gets translated on the big screen. So, whatever character he plays, there would be a shade of his real persona but Ram is completely opposite. I think that contradiction worked in favour of the film. Today, audiences are enjoying the scenes where Vijay Sethupathi feels shy in front of Trisha and how he struggles even to casually converse with her. 90% of boys in the ‘90s didn’t have the courage to directly approach a girl and express their love for her. I have to tell this one unique quality of Vijay Sethupathi is that he is not someone who does homework for his scenes. Vijay can be compared with AB de Villiers, you don’t really know whether he would opt for a hook shot, sweep shot, or miss the ball. Only in the shooting spot, Vijay would create the magic and he is very spontaneous which is a unique quality," says Prem, who approached Trisha to play Janu because he wanted a Tamil girl.
“I wanted a Tamil girl to play Janu because only then, the actress would be able to carry the emotions as she knows the language. Though Trisha is a mainstream actress, she is a seasoned performer. For example even though Aaru is a commercial mass masala film, Trisha’s performance in the ‘Pakkatha’ song was topnotch. Her work in Yennai Arindhaal and many other films proved that she is an efficient performer. Moreover, today, my film has tasted the success but before the shoot, I only had the script on-hand. So, I needed stars like Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha to carry the story on their broad shoulders," explains Prem on why he chose Trisha and Vijay Sethupathi for 96, he, in fact, told everyone in his close circle that if both the actors refused to do the film, he had planned to shelve the idea.
When I interacted with Trisha a few days back, she told me that Prem prefers to lock the first take in the shoot, he doesn’t believe in multiple takes and the director is a lover of spontaneity. “The first take is magic, it can’t be replicated never ever again. Luckily, for me, my actors are thorough professionals, they have brilliant memory power that there won’t be any difficulty in the dialogue part. Any dialogue can be performed with multiple emotions and all a director like me has to do is properly explain the mood they need from their actors. So, I patiently explained the mood of the scene to my actors and being amazing performers, they flawlessly delivered their scenes in first takes. There are situations which demanded multiple takes but that is quite normal. My motto is that when there are bright chances to score a century, why to settle for 90?,” he asks.
The second half of 96 only has two characters — that of Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha. When asked where Prem got the courage to narrate a film with just two actors in the second half, the director says, “I didn’t decide the presence of the number of characters. If you carefully looked at the time of the story as it unfolds in the second half, it is only post 12 am so eventually all other characters vanished off. The thing about writing scripts is that you have to go with the flow of the characters and shouldn’t try too hard with various options because it might take you to the wrong route."
Prem says as he stayed true to his characters and script, a lot of magical moments happened to him while shooting 96. “People are appreciating me for casting actors who played the childhood versions of Vijay Sethupathi, Trisha, and Devadarshini but the truth is I didn’t spend too much time on that aspect. I just told the situation and narrated the scripts to them, they grabbed it easily and performed. Similarly, obtaining permission to shoot in Chennai is actually tedious, unlike Bangalore and Hyderabad where people entertain film shoots in their premises. The school owner never gave permission for film shoots before but after listening to the script and the need of the location, he allowed us to shoot at his place for free. The five-star hotel (Accord) said a big ‘No’ when we tried to approach them through political influence but on hearing the story and our sincere requirement, they immediately gave permission. Shooting in metro trains demand a lot of legal procedures but we actually shot our scenes as if it is like an auto rickshaw. The officers were super cooperative and allowed us to shoot wherever needed. I thanked nature in the opening credits of the film because of the above reasons. Today, audience and critics like you are appreciating the scenes shot in the metro train, school, and the Hyderabad airport because of these locations and the officials who allowed us to shoot our film in the respective places. Otherwise, the songs and film wouldn’t have created the same impact," says the director.
Talking about the Telugu remake, Prem says “The Telugu remake is almost locked. People who have acquired our film have a great taste so I believe they will not change the climax and the soul of the film. They have also approached me to direct the remake but things are yet to be finalised."
A section of media feels that 96 is inspired by Richard Linklater Before Sunrise but Prem denies it. “I haven’t seen Before Sunrise yet. But there are many films which are on the lines of 96 like The Bridges of Madison County, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, and Azhagi. Our cinema industry has completed 100 years so shades of films released in the past is inevitable but the thing is you shouldn’t exactly copy the previous works."
When asked Prem whether he has any idea to churn out a sequel to 96 like Before Sunrise. “Even Trisha asked me this same question but somewhere the idea should hit my head and the characters should ask me to write more about them. In fact, I never had plans to direct 96. The film is a fiction based on an incident which happened to my school friends. As I didn’t attend the reunion, I developed the script with my own imagination and things which I heard from my friends who shared interesting stories that happened during the reunion of their schoolmates," signed off Prem.
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