“Of all the things in the whole world, only photographs have the power to stop time,” says Ram, quite aptly named – for Lord Ram is the trademark of fidelity – who leads life as a travel photographer and mentor. A profession that lets him stay untethered and be constantly on the move while simultaneously allowing him to freeze any moment he deems worthy on celluloid. The juxtaposition of ‘fleeting moments’ and ‘memories that stand still in time’ follow us throughout the movie: while the characters are physically always on the move – in cars, on late night walks on empty roads and in the metro – their conversation and the heart of the story is all about their past love which will always stay unmoving and unchanging two decades behind in time.
Janaki, on the other hand, is steadfast. Grown up, she leads a stable life taking care of her daughter and husband. Even as kids, when they realise they are in love, Ram loses his mind and turns into a ball of super-conscious sweat factory but Janu is steady. “Don’t let your thoughts waver and lose focus in your studies,” she advises him noticing his change in behaviour. She refuses to sing the song he yearns to listen simply because he doesn’t ask her himself. She toys around with his obvious discomfort bullying him into wishing her on her birthday to the point that he passes out. It’s cute and very relatable.
While both of them have had two decades worth of growing up, their younger selves pop out the instant they are by themselves. The timelessness of love shows both off and on-screen – the movie is about high school kids in 1996, a year before I was even born and yet it resonates with scenes I’ve seen and been in, a whole decade and a half later. Ram is shown to be innocent – his speech quickens with his excitement as they enter his hometown and his eyes light up as he sees his name still etched on his school notice board – but definitely not meek. A meek person won’t survive life always travelling to new places. He is shown bossing around his students, his friends are shown to be wary of his temper, he is curt towards his parents but when she is around, his tongue is in knots and limbs turn to jelly. She goes right back to taking care of him and toying with this discomfort again getting him a cleaner haircut and changing his clothes and drilling him till he opens up about his virginity. While as individuals, they’re 37, their relationship had stayed on pause and never moved an inch beyond 15. It shows. It’s very reminiscent of young love from yesteryears and not the teenage pregnancy scenes we got going on now.
I guess not many Indian movies have handled relationships quite adeptly like this one has. While romance is often a minor side-track of the larger plot and largely ignored in general movies, it is often dealt in extremes in genre-specific movies as well. Even movies calling themselves love stories often end up romanticising toxic elements of relationships or overdo their portrayals of both sweet and bitter moments of any relationship to the point of cringeworthiness. It’s always larger-than-life, it feeds unrealistic and sometimes unhealthy expectations from life leaving the audience yearning for a love ‘like in the movies’. 96 is very grounded at heart and for the first time in Tamil cinema, shows the male lead take ‘no’ for an answer from the girl the very first instance. He does stalk her but not to “win her back” (or wear her down), rather as the most he could do to suffice his need for her presence and to generally look out for her. He’s done such a good job that she’s absolutely had no clue whatsoever through the years. I still feel it would’ve been better had they steered clear of stalking completely. I get the appeal, letting go isn’t easy at all. But the movie doesn’t handle it as a flaw in an otherwise ideal lover, rather an extension of his love for her. Perhaps it is true from his point of view, he didn’t mean to hurt her and just wanted to be around but still, stalking is stalking and it is better off portrayed at least as something that the hero isn’t too proud of or the heroine isn’t swooning over.
The movie largely relies on implications. Not once does anyone utter the word ‘love’. Everything is hinted at and left to the inference of the viewers. It makes for some really cute moments such as when he wants to state that she looked like a beautiful bride in a saree and he merely acts it out. She can’t help but break out in giggles and requests he does it again. Which, of course, he does. Ram takes such care to not even lay a finger on her because to him, that’s a sign of respect. They spend the entire night together, alone for most of it, and all they do is exchange memories filling up the gaps in each other’s stories, helping each other gain some much-needed closure. What they wish, they live through their minds in smoke. They pretend to be married in front of his students and for those five minutes, Janu lives the life she’s always wanted. Her retelling of what could have happened was very much reminiscent of La La Land’s final sequence where they gave us a glimpse of what their happily-ever-after would’ve looked like. Watching that and suddenly being jerked back into reality was almost too cruel to experience.
Just knowing these two characters will tell you how the movie is going to end. The instant Janu tells them she has a daughter, we know there’s no question of a happily ever after and we know that the first fifteen minutes into the story. The rest of the runtime merely calls you in to watch the journey towards that bitter ending. While the ending is sad for those of us who watch the movie, the characters themselves seem way more at peace with their reality. This wasn’t about claiming lost love, or taking back what fate took from them; rather it’s merely adding a fresh page to their book of memories and provides some much-needed closure filling in the gaps of what happened after their abrupt separation and the years that followed. The ending demanded a parting hug that lingers on and on but doing so would disrupt the entire character arc that the story set up for the both of them, so she does the most she can and cups her palms over his face and crumbles into tears. He quietly adds her clothes to his suitcase of memories, freezing another moment in time and that’s all it’ll ever be. The epilogue to their unfinished story.