Ram : the loner
“96” could have been named the Life of Ram, as the opening song is, in my view, the whole movie in a nutshell. Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) is the soul of “96”, we live the story through his eyes and his feelings. Indeed, the movie begins and ends with the painful but tender observation of Ram’s loneliness, from the blue immensity of the underwater life in the captivating first shot to the narrowness of his domestic space haunted with his memory suitcase in the cruel last shot.
Whether he is immersed in a breathtaking natural landscape or in the middle of a big city, Ram is shown alone, among the trees, among his fellow humans, contemplating life rather than living it, staying still rather than jumping into the water (one of the opening song beautiful shots), secretly watching Jaanu (Trisha) living her life rather than living his love story.
The reversal of gender stereotypes
One of the most striking frames from “96”, for me, is this one : watching these characters in this elevator, leaving the hotel for a walk, I realized that, thanks to PremKumar’s realistic writing and filmmaking, Ram was the embodiment of a little revolution, a paradigm shift in tamil cinema’s gender stereotypes. Indeed, Ram is petrified by his shyness, looking so down that his face disappears in his hair whereas Jaanu is bold, fearlessly holding her dupatta, noticing his shyness with a benevolent smile.
A swirl of tamil cinema classic frames, characters, lyrics came to my mind then : Panchavarnam (Revathi) shying in front of Sakthivel (Kamal Haasan) in “Devar Magan”, Ranganayaki (Meena) shying in front of Muthu (RajiniKanth) in “Muthu” (« Devathaikku vetkam vandhello » in Kuluvallile song), Deivaanai (Suganya) shying in front of Chinna Kounder (Vijayakanth) in “Chinna Kounder” (« Vekkathula selai konjum vittu vittu poraada » in Muthumani maalai song). Et caetera.
So here is the revolution : this leitmotiv emotion that tamil cinema has assigned to female characters for decades, that is to say, « vetkam » (a kind of shy embarassment with the lover), defines the male character in “96”’s love story. Usually, male characters who express some « vetkam » in front of women, are either, genuinely shy, or consciously imitating this « feminine » trait of character, but always to make the audience laugh. On the contrary, « vetkam » seems to be in Ram’s character DNA, whether he is in a barber shop with Jaanu asking him to remove his beard or in an elevator intimacy with her. We are not laughing at him, we are touched.
In “96”, there is a refreshing and necessary reversal of gender stereotypes : in front of a shying Ram, Jaanu is the one who leads the dance, who talks about sex life (« Are you a virgin, Ram ? »), who undresses the guy and, who, very symbolically, asks him to remove his beard. In tamil cinema, mustache and beard have been mandatory features of masculinity for decades but Premkumar releases his male character of being a formula manly hero just as Jaanu releases Ram of his beard. The beard is shaved, the masks fall, the characters appear in their truth.
Ram, the time traveller
Ram’s character is structured just like the whole movie : it works like a pendulum motion between past and present, between flashbacks and current reality, like a wave that comes to the shore and returns to the ocean. And here is the main key to understand him : Ram is unable to be there, in the present, he is rooted in old memories, he cannot help but live in the past. Somehow, Ram is a time traveller, which is obvious in what, in my opinion, is the most beautiful sequence in “96”, when he goes back to his old school in a kind of self-touristic walk. Time is suspended in the empty and silencious school where Ram is wandering, caressing chalk powder, drinking the school tap water, feeling everything with his senses, reliving as a 10th grade school boy he used to be (he still is). As a matter of fact, the travelling shots in the school remind me of the famous engravings of the “method of loci”, an antique mnemotechnic art of memory which recommends to associate each item one wants to remember with a physical location in a familiar place. Thus, Ram’s memories are beautifully spatialized in this sequence.
Photography and time freezing.
This complex relationship to temporality is why Ram is a photographer. As he says to his students : “Only photograph can freeze time (…) in the photograph you took, I’ll always be 37 years old”.
Photography is about freezing time and somehow, making our memories and ourselves eternal. Ram is still that introverted, hesitating 10th grade boy, crazy in love with Jaanu. Thus, Ram has frozen the child in him and behaves like that, when, in the first song, he plays like a wild kid in the nature, when he talks like a little boy to the school watchman (the brilliant Janagaraj) and the barber (Krishnan) who tenderly tease him, when he holds a balloon waiting for Jaanu or when he runs behind her, like a child behind his mum. In the reunion party, his former classmates notice that he has changed a lot but only Jaanu recognizes the same young boy hidden behind his beary beard (that’s why she asks him to remove his beard/mask).
Photography is also about voyeurism : Ram has followed Jaanu during her college days and secretly watched her wedding.
And finally, photography is about stealing moments from others : Ram stole Jaanu’s thupatta twice, the navy blue thupatta of her school days, the blue thupatta after their night together.
In a way, Premkumar has shaped Ram like a kaleidoscopical reflection of classic photographers characters in cinema history : he is “voyeur” just like James Stewart in Hitchcock’s “Rear window”, he is a moment stealer just like David Hemmings in Antonioni’s “Blow up”, but he also uses the very few moments spent with his lover to carve memories for the future just like Clint Eastwood in “The Bridges of Madison County”. The night spent together is Ram and Jaanu’s island (“Iravingu theevai namai soozhude” or “Like an island, night is encircling us” says the song written by Uma Devi), the memory island that will be an answer to their future sorrows. In fact, everything was said in the first song (written by Karthik Nehta) : “Nettrin gnabagangal yaavum koodiye, indre ippodhe artham aakkudhe, indrin ippodhin inbam yaavume, naalai or artham kaattume” (“Yesterday’s happiness come together, to make today, meaningful right now. All happiness of now and today, will show a meaning tomorrow..”)
Ram is unique, deep, silently heartbreaking and surely one of the most beautiful male characters in recent tamil cinema as well as in Vijay Sethupathi’s filmography. Ram is a new string to Vijay Sethupathis’s acting bow and a reflection of the actor’s path in tamil cinema, playing complex misfits instead of unrealistic omnipotent heroes, breaking tamil film hero formula, deconstructing masculinity.