The quiet subversiveness of '96: Revisiting 2018 Trisha, Vijay Sethupathi-starrer through the lens of gender
Set in small town Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, ‘96 is the story of Ram and Jaanu, who have studied together since Class 1 and have always been “in love”.
Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve had the chance to watch new films as well as catch up with old ones. Among the latter is the sublime and lyrical ‘96, C Premkumar’s Tamil feature film starring Trisha and Vijay Sethupathi. This Sunday, 4 October, will mark two years since its release.
Set in small town Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, ‘96 is the story of Ram and Jaanu, who have studied together since Class 1 and have always been “in love”. As they enter high school, this love undergoes a change, with a new heightened physical awareness of the other. However, they are unable to find the vocabulary to articulate the same. Ram can only appeal with his eyes, which refuse to move away from his Jaanu. Jaanu, a gifted singer, expresses her feelings through her songs.
Their adolescent love ends abruptly after Class 10, when Ram’s family shifts out of Thanjavur.
Twenty-two years later, they meet at a class reunion in Chennai and spend the night together before Jaanu catches an early morning flight back to Singapore, where she has settled.
Their meeting begins on an awkward note as each harbours questions and doubts over why the other hadn’t sought them out in all this time. Despite these doubts, what hits them is the undiminished intensity of their feelings for one another.
The night unravels the magic of their togetherness — seeking answers, getting them whilst they talk, listen, wander, drive or sip coffee together — sharing life, poetry, music; emoting through words, tears, silences. They are painfully aware that the magic will last all of eight hours before reality kicks in. As it happens, the night turns out to be full of surprises and the discovery that they never stopped loving each other.
Their explosive emotional chemistry is what holds us in thrall, drawing us into their mindscape while we traverse a parallel nostalgic journey through our own past.
Apart from its sheer beauty, ‘96 scores on several other counts: The haunting melodies (by Govind Vasantha), backed by meaningful lyrics and rendered soulfully by Chinmayee, are woven into the film so seamlessly and organically that it heightens the cinematic experience several notches. In keeping with the film’s down-to-earth realism, the lead pair is clothed in just one set of ordinary everyday wear, sans make up, throughout the time they are together. A sequence where Jaanu fantasises about being blissfully married to Ram is breathtaking in its uniqueness.
Most importantly, the film is quietly subversive of gender norms. This is evinced in —
— Portraying Jaanu as the more forthright person in the relationship, both in the past and the present. She’s been the more articulate of the two, taking initiative in seeking answers, wrenching them out of a reserved, diffident and introverted Ram.
— Portraying Ram as the more sentimental of the duo: from writing poems to his lover and storing them in his diary, to stealing her dupatta in the past in order to ‘touch and feel’ her presence, all memories carefully and lovingly tucked away in a ‘suitcase’ for posterity.
— The revelation that Ram has remained a virgin as he didn’t care to separate sex from love and hadn’t been able to love another person.
— At the reunion party, Ram brings Jaanu a plate of food. She has part of it and passes on the rest to him to finish. Ram is seen eating with the same spoon that as Jaanu: a ‘reverse culture shock’ moment slipped in neatly and quietly into the narrative. There’s a popular Tamil sentiment that ‘good’ wives serve their husbands first and have the leftovers from their plates, a sentiment exploited time and again in Tamil films. (I remember a 1991 film, Chinna Thambi, starring Khushbu and Prabhu which extolled the glory of women who eat their husband’s leftovers.) Ram’s unobtrusive act turns that sentiment on its head.
— Jaanu, who is a happy wife and mother, expresses her love for Ram unapologetically and unreservedly, sending out a strong message that loving one person is never at the expense of loving another, the two are unrelated.
‘96 is a film that celebrates the sheer joy of togetherness, unhampered by draining notions of propriety. And it achieves this feat through simple acts — walking, talking, sharing, emoting, laughing, crying — and above all, through eloquent silences and liquid looks.
‘96 is an extraordinary film. It takes you through the depths of sorrow and the heights of joy. It leaves you yearning.
(Note: ‘96 has been dubbed in Malayalam and Hindi but I would strongly recommend watching the film in Tamil or Malayalam with English subtitles as the beauty of the musical numbers in Tamil doesn’t translate as well into Hindi. The dialogues, however, sparkle, for which you could rewatch the Hindi version.)
Lalitha Dhara is a retired academician and gender activist. She has compiled and edited publications on the gender contribution of the Phules, Ambedkar and Periyar among others. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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