96 movie review: Vijay Sethupathi, Trisha’s winning romance is devoid of melodrama, clichés

96 is a refreshingly fresh romantic trip down the memory lane with outstanding performances by its charming lead pair – Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha. With the film, Prem Kumar, a cameraman turned director, offers stunning visuals and soothing music. By the end of this mature love story, you will fall in love with it.

The film packs on nostalgia as it is about high school sweethearts, Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) and Janu (Trisha) who are meeting up after 22 years, at a ’96 batch reunion. The rekindling of the old sparks sets the tone for a very simple yet straightforward story told with a lot of passion and some beautifully crafted scenes. Ilayaraja’s hit music from the 1980s and 90s, which has been used at multiple points in the film, does its job of enhancing the narration.

A still from 96. Image via Twitter/@venkat_shine
A still from 96. Image via Twitter/@venkat_shine
Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) is a noted travel photographer who also teaches the skill to a few students. By nature, he is a bit aloof and shy. During a trip to his hometown Thanjavur, some old memories come rushing back to him as he visits his school. Urged by the school watchman (played by veteran comedian Janakraj in a cameo), he calls up his school best friend (Bhagavathi Perumal), who adds him to their class’ WhatsApp group. His classmates are delighted to see the elusive Ram join their group and soon, they start planning a big reunion in Chennai, where most of them now reside.

The first half whips up nostalgic memories of the lead pair’s school days. We are told that Ram was just an average student, madly in love with his classmate and singer Janaki, aka Janu. With that, their teenage romance unfolds on screen, convincingly captured by the director via two fantastic young actors Adithya Bhaskar (son of character actor MS Bhaskar) and Gouri Kishan. The nineties’ small-town school milieu and the public’s craze for Ilayaraja’s music has been explored well.

The second half marks Sethupathi and Trisha’s reunion as Ram and Janu (now married and settled in Singapore) meet after 22 years. The former lovers go through a flood of emotions after they meet, making you root for them. The second half is interesting and conversational but what grabs you is the smart writing – reasons are given as to why they never got in touch with each other after a sudden separation despite being madly in love with each other, which keep you from wandering off. The backstory is told in an understated yet touching manner without any melodramatic clichés. In a way, 96 is also a study of two contrasting characters where the heroine is definitely stronger and more assertive than the male.

There are also certain scenes in the film which stand out. The school scenes are beautifully picturised and a scene in the second half where Janu asks Ram whether he is still a virgin, is a hoot. The heartwarming conversations between the lead pair and the winning climax which reinforces what one already knows: letting go of what you really love, has been translated to the screen effectively by Kumar. The colour tonality, locations of Chennai and overall composition of the frames enhance the narrative along with Govind Menon’s music.

The film has a lingering touch and feel of Cheran’s Autograph (2004) and Thangar Bachchan’s Azhagi (2002). The only drawback of the film is its length — 157 minutes — which is too long for a walk down the memory lane. It is a casting coup of sorts where Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha play matured lovers, and that has worked to the advantage of the film along with the actors who play their younger selves. The supporting cast of Devadarshini, Bhagavathi Perumal , Aadukalam Murgadoss who appear as friends are perfect in their roles. On the whole, if you like romance, 96 is pure magic.