This piece is a review of the movie “96” — a Tamil movie that attracted a wide audience and became extremely popular in 2018. However, this post is also at some level a commentary of sorts on culture, values and the value of love and nostalgia in life, and an exploration of why this movie attracted such an audience.
It is probably a good time to be a Tamil movie lover — the oldies reading this will probably think there have been better times, with better actors, star performers and amazing musicians and screenplay writers, of course. In all honesty, though, 2018 produced a few really good mainstream and classy Tamil movies and I hope that in 2019, this trend will continue. While Chekka Chevandha Vaanam was a classy-but-dirty gangster family saga dealing bullets, blood, death and tears upon all characters in it, and Seethakaathi took a humorous, art-house look at the film industry, populism and irrationality in society, the loud, colourful movies like Kaala or Petta were over-the-top, mostly mindless movies purely meant for the masses. We’ve seen few delicately made, warm and fuzzy ones in Kollywood, and warm-and-fuzzy love stories that draw immense crowds like 96, aren’t exactly dime-a-dozen.
Therefore, 96 is an unlikely movie to include in the same list popular movies. It has neither progressive themes, nor the blood, lust, sex, or violence that are in fashion these days. It doesn’t have any significant social message or critique. It doesn’t feature six-pack based heroes bench pressing cars and trucks, not fat-breasted heroines or item numbers. 96 is, instead, a series of moments featuring normal-seeming middle class individuals. It doesn’t have themes of social justice entrenched in its story, nor tales of gratuitously broken personalities that are made complex or artificially interesting and their travails through life or through stellar photography on the screen. It doesn’t deal with social problems or get preachy about agendas one way or another. Instead, it deals with characters from small town 1990s India, far from the big cities. It deals with people who grew up in the 1990s, when TV and Radio were mass media, when some of the best popular music in southern India was made by Ilayaraja, when the internet was in its infancy and mobile phones were nonexistent, when the value systems of old India lived on in little India and transmuted into what impressionable minds thought constituted right and decent behaviour. The denizens of this time grew up and reinterpreted these values through new lenses of idealism, influenced by the indefatigable interplay of religion, the changing social norms of decency and acceptable conduct, to finally arrive at that set of ideals that constitutes this sense of feeling at home and comfortable in your skin.
Perhaps there is a reason why this movie is a resounding popular success despite possessing all the elements of a typical Kollywood potboiler, such as unrequited love, tears, drama, big and chart-topping stars, ridiculously well known and loved old songs by Ilayaraja and the like. The difference between 96 and potboilers in its method. It makes the audience relate to the characters as kids and as adults. In an increasingly complex world with scores of new and often unfamiliar ideas, entirely new threats to things we have adored or enjoyed for decades, technological disruption that is foisted on us everyday, changing social norms that question all our foundational ideas about our identities, and which seem a world away from what was acceptable, decent or even tangible even a few years ago, there is anything but a sense of constancy of place for most people who are old enough to have grown up in simpler times. The audience who turn up at this movie seem to relive these lives and seem to have evolved through the scores of cultural fulminations and revolutions we have seen unfold in small or large part in recent times. The audience’s applause and appreciation for the little cultural details in the movie that are expressions of this kind of decency, are a representation of what is still considered noble and good by them today.
Nostalgia is an almost exact counter to the phenomena that change our world —it idealizes, sets in stone and clarifies and solidifies values through reflection about one’s own past; perhaps in summary, nostalgia helps us learn our own “identity functions” (to borrow a term from machine learning as I sometimes am known to do). Why do we make the decisions we make as individuals, and how far do impactful experiences we have in the formative years of early adulthood influence us far into the future?
96 is at one level a commentary on what it means to be a good man, however personal the underpinnings or the situation. We’ve seen (too many) examples of the brusque, machismo, hyper-masculine hero (or anti-hero) on the silver screen. The antithesis to this is portrayed usually as some unrealistic and idealistic pastiche of the winning narrative, the goody two shoes, the superman, the jack-in-the-box, the nerd, or the guy who can’t stand up for himself. In darker and grittier movies, even this isn’t the case — the pastiches and exaggerations are taken too far, and the character becomes unrelatable to most movie goers. A repetition of such lies around what men should be ilke (in much the same as lies about what women ought to be like) probably influence culture more than we might imagine. Not much is made on the silver screen, of the man who cares, who loves deeply and even obsessively, who protects and provides, or who just goes about his business with a degree of decency — in truth, the word “glamour” doesn’t really come up when trying to describe such a hero, especially when it is a love-shy one such as the protagonist in 96, and perhaps this is a commentary on society today with its oft-occurring combination of toxic masculinity/feminism and oneupmanship. Perhaps such realistic characters will only be seen as desirable on the screen when it really is an anomaly to be principled in this way.
Which brings me again, to why 96 might be well liked — 96 alludes to India’s enduring epic of Rama and Janaki — the Ramayana — in at least the names of its protagonists (Ramachandran and Janaki Devi), and in general, many elements of that old and resilient tale of values, family, resilience in the face of hardship and dutifulness, are taken (or inverted) here. Both are love stories, and both allude to separation, grief and loss at some level. This is a story, however, with no happy ending — but then, if you consider the Uttara Ramayanam, that wasn’t a happy ending either. 96 therefore comes across not only as a tragedy, but as a meaningful love story that is a compelling amalgam of formative experiences — childhood and high-school nostalgia, deeply felt affection, love and longing, a sense of unfaltering decency and an earthy, real-world feel to the protagonist characters, a denouement that is not otherworldly, but relatable to most movie-goers in Tamil, and well carried by actors Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan. Compellingly, 96 is also infused with a few scenes that gently (and in some cases, artfully) play with the emotions of the audience. The movie has several funny moments, but also portrays a great deal of grief, regret and loss, no doubt the kind of regret or loss that each human being is bound to experience in their lives, if they have really loved (whether they have lost, or not). More than anything, the relationships dealt with here are devoid of a certain over-the-top drama that’s all too common in Indian movies, and that is instead substituted with a mature appreciation on the part of both characters of what they mean to each other.
96 takes place over one day and night, for the most part, and this is the focus of the movie. The actors, especially the younger child actors have outdone the older ones, and managed to transport the audience to another time, and to another place. Overall, 96 brought in a sense of nostalgia, beauty and unspoiled maturity to the theme of young love and loss, which are an oft-explored topic in movies. It is also an interesting take on the morals that make the characters who they are, and how the lines they draw in the sand define them, and beautify the entire relationship as a consequence.