C Prem Kumar's 96, with Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha, has clinched this year's Gollapudi Srinivas Award. The prize money of Rs 1.5 lakhs will be handed over to the first-time director on August 12.
It was on August 12 in 1992 that a young Gollapudi Srinivas lost his life while filming his first work, Prema Pustakam, in Telugu. Standing on a rock by the sea, trying to get a shot right, he was washed away by a giant killer wave. He was the youngest son of the veteran Telugu actor-director-producer, Gollapudi Maruthi Rao.
The award, which was first announced in 1997, went to Leslie Carvalho's debut work. The Outhouse, a sweet poignant story of love, longing and disappointment. The movie was part of the Indian Panorama of the International Film Festival of India. Since then many first works have been honoured with the Gollapudi Srinivas trophy. Shyamaprasad's Agni Sakshi (Malayalam), Shonali's Bose's Amu (English), Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par (Hindi) and Gyan Correa's The Good Road (Gujarati) are some of the award winners.
Prem Kumar's 96 is the first Tamil movie since Janaki Vishwanathan's Kutty in 2002 to have been honoured. 96 is a lovely piece of fiction of a school reunion – and what happens before and after. A school romance in Thanjavur between Ramachandran (Vijay Sethupathi) and Trisha (Jaanu) winds through sugary sweet moments and torrid turbulence before she along with her family relocates to Chennai. He tries his best to get in touch with her, but fate has other plans.
Years later, Ramachandran's school pals organise a get-together of their class which passed out in 1996 – hence the title. And Jaanu, who is married and lives with her husband and child in Singapore, flies down for the party, where the two older lovers meet and decide to spend a night together roaming the streets of Chennai.
96 reminded me of the 1995 drama, Before Sunrise, by Richard Linklater – where a young American man (Ethan Hawke) and a young French woman (Julie Delpy) meet on a train and get off in Vienna. They spend a night together and part before sunrise – promising to meet again. And Linklater helped the couple to reunite in two sequels – Before Sunset and Before Midnight.
In a vague sort of a way, Before Sunrise in turn reminded me of a 1976 romantic novel, Brief Ecstasy, by Denise Robins, where a pretty Rosemary meets a handsome Paul on a train to Malaga in Spain. As the train races through wooded land under a star-spangled night, the two experience the most ecstatic moments.
96 has all this in it – though no train journey, and Prem Kumar spins a story of love and parting and regret and remorse. And during the night, the once-upon-a-time lovers meeting after an eternity exchange notes. He is a celebrated travel photographer, and when he asks her if she is happy with her husband and child, she pauses and ponders before quipping, “I have peace”. As they walk hand-in-hand, she gets more and more unhappy when she learns that he is still single, and what is more, still a virgin!
Back in her hotel room, she shuts herself inside the toilet and bursts out weeping with him outside swept by bitter-sweet memories of a romance that went astray. Sethupathi is brilliant as a man overcome with sorrow, and Trisha appears so apt as a woman who feels life has played a terrible trick. Backed by an imaginatively penned script (though the plot by itself may not be exactly novel), the two actors light up the narrative with rare touches.
96 is undoubtedly worthy of the Gollapudi Award, but the prize money of Rs 1.5 lakhs seems more like a token in this day and age when the cost of making even a very modest film runs into a couple of crores of rupees.
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