Were it not for Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan, cinematographer Prem Kumar would have axed his directing debut 96 and retreated behind the camera.
The production got going after the Tamil movie stars signed up to play childhood sweethearts who rekindle their relationship at a school reunion gathering. “Once I finished writing the script, I knew that it was a performance-oriented film,” Kumar said. “The film was not going to rely on a budget or camera work. It is about two people and the change in their moods. It is a very intense film that needed seasoned actors.”
Also starring Devadarshini and Bagavathi Perumal, the film has been produced by Madras Enterprises and is scheduled to be out in September.
Kumar was struck by an unusual romance between two of his classmates at his own school reunion in 2015. “I thought there was a scope for a script in that situation,” Kumar said. Unfolding within the course of a single night, 96 is about how a relationship restarts and rebuilds between Ram (Sethupathi) and Jaanu (Krishnan).
“Middle-aged people generally have a similar lifestyle,” the filmmaker said. “They will be working and they might have a family life. The unusualness and experimentation stops after you turn 25. But these two characters are in an abnormal situation. That is what excited me. When you have a time constraint, you tend to think differently. Though it is a one-night film, each sequence is like a short film, which had its own emotions and conflicts.”
The aim is to depict the emotion of love without boundaries, Kumar added. “There is a sort of imperative about how a man and woman should be,” he said. “The same way, love too is regulated. But love comes out even in uncommon situations. Love is the purest form of expression. That is what we have underlined in the film.”
Kumar’s first credit as a cinematographer was for Balaji Tharaneetharan’s acclaimed comedy Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (2012), which featured Vijay Sethupathi in his breakout role. The film tells the story of a man who suffers temporary amnesia a day before his wedding.
Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom is based on Kumar’s own experiences. “That really happened to me,” Kumar remembered. “In real life, I recovered within a day and it happened 10 days prior the wedding. I could not remember that incident at all. The director imagined what would happen if I hadn’t recovered at all. The second half was very well choreographed in a very well-written script.”
Kumar wrote 96 during the floods in December in Chennai in 2015. He had no intention of directing the film, but succumbed to Sethupathi’s persuasion. “He did not want the spirit of the film to get away, and that is how I took up direction,” Kumar said.
Sethupathi is one of the finest actors in Tamil cinema, Kumar added. “Approaching Sethu was easy because we have been friends for the past 10 years,” Kumar said. “It is a long-standing friendship. Sethu is a very confident person. On the contrary, Ram is an introvert, who has a child-like nature and has a lack of confidence. But Trisha is an honest and fearless person, which also reflects in Jaanu.”