This is a very well-made movie. And confirms my feeling that Trisha is secretly a brilliant actress, as good as Parvathy, but less likely to be given really good roles (partly because the Tamil industry just isn’t as good for female characters as the Malayalam). And also confirms my feeling that Vijay Sethupathi was put on this earth for women who like big natural bodies and sensitive souls. Oh, and this is a very VERY long review, once I get into the SPOILERS section. Watch out!
The music is the same, Govind Vasantha is the composer, someone on his way up in the Tamil film world, with a classical music background, and his sound is just right for this film. It’s achingly beautiful without dominating. You don’t remember the songs, you remember the mood they created.
All of this subtlety is there, this kind of quietness, so that the audience can focus purely on the two central performances. Well, really 4, because the flashback teen actors are as important as the present day Trisha and Vijay. Gauri G Kishan and Adithya Bhaskar don’t have much dialogue, but they have a fresh look to them, and a naked emotional openness in their faces that makes you feel protective of their emotions, worried over what they are going through.
This is a remarkable movie for how strictly focused it is on the two leads. The biggest flaw of the film, I think, is the opening which keeps the attention on Vijay’s character. It allows for a build to the reveal of Trisha, but it does the film a disservice because it makes the audience assume this will be the story of one man, when in fact it is the story of two people, man and woman, and what they share. A more honest opening would have shown them both in their current separate lives, before bringing them together in the past flashbacks and the present day. That’s what it is really about, these two people who have grown apart finding each other again.
It’s also one of those movies that kind or works best if you work from the end back. You have to know where they are going, and all the ways they got there, before you can appreciate fully where they start at the beginning. And where the film starts and how it builds. Which also means that I can’t really talk about the film in detail without getting into SPOILERS.
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We start with Vijay Sethupathi as a gentle giant landscape photographer. We see him touching and loving animals, and guiding his large class of young students, and then asking one of his student/assistants to drive him back to his home town. We know him from this, he is very good at his job and respected by his students, he is also lonely and yet happy with his loneliness, would rather stand apart and observe the world through his camera than participate. And then he stops by his old elementary school and spontaneously reaches out to his friend from school, and then joins the school WhatsApp group and suggests a reunion. At this point, from what we know of him, this reunion idea seems like nothing more than nostalgia for school days and friendship from a lonely man who has nothing in his life. But then he looks at an old photo from school days and flashes back.
The flash back is built carefully too, it doesn’t start like a great love story. There was a girl who liked to sing in his class. Somehow she always asked him to open her lunchbox for her or otherwise help her when she needed something, out of all the other boys. But that’s all it was. And then she didn’t come to school for two days and he was in agony all of a sudden. She came on Monday, still with a high fever, and then turned and smiled at him, and everything was different. He was in love. He couldn’t talk to her any more, or look at her, his heart would beat fast and he would sweat if she talked to him.
The first flashback feels like a little kid story. He is in love without fully knowing what it was about, barely moving on from friendship too love. The sort of coming of age experience most people have, the crush on a classmate that blows over. It’s nostalgic and dreamy and a bit silly, it makes the audience smile at the youth of it all. And at the confusion, they have grown up together (Indian schools have the same batch ages 4 to 18) and see each other every day. And yet he doesn’t even know where she lives, all these kids just see each other at school and don’t think beyond that. They have little childish lives with little barriers around them.
We return to the present to find the class buzzing with arranging a reunion, Vijay is talking to everyone, his “sister” (the girl who leaved near him and his closest female friend in the class), his best friend, the class gossip, it’s all very cheerful and happy. And real and practical, not poetic sweeping romance, just everyday life. Makes the flashback sequence feel everyday too, having it paired together.
And then we come back to the flashback and slowly their story deepens. The whole class was buzzing with the romance of it and helping them to talk alone, but he could never say anything to her. She just smiled at him and was hard to read. But she started giving him half her lunch, and looking for him in school. And on the last day of school, they rode their bikes together and said good-bye for the summer. And then she came back and splashed ink on his shirt and told him to never forget her.
It’s sweet, and touching, and feels a little more painful and serious than when it started, when he just liked the girl that smiled at him and was his friend. And we can feel something terrible must be coming, some reason that they separated. Which is when the film pulls a switch on us and shows things from her side.
But first we go back to the present day, for the joking to turn a bit serious. All of Vijay’s friends are whispering together about having arranged for Trisha to come to the reunion, she confirmed last minute. But before she arrives, Vijay starts hiding and pacing. It isn’t quite the silly nostalgic childhood teasing the rest of the group is expecting, it’s something a little more painful and real even now. And it becomes even more real when Trisha shows up and looks around, clearly looking for Vijay. Trisha’s face immediately makes it real, she isn’t laughing and joking either, she is stressed and hopeful and naked in her emotions. I know Trisha is dubbed in this film, but that doesn’t matter, because 90% of her character is conveyed just in her expressions and gestures.
And then Trisha learns Vijay is there, and the sound drops away and her heartbeat starts up (great soundmixing in this film) and everything goes slow and we get her flashback. She was happy and excited to return to school after summer break. She got to the classroom early and looked for Vijay. She waited and waited, and he didn’t come. And then he wasn’t on the list when the teacher called the role. One of the other students asked and found out he hadn’t registered. The boys went after school to his address and learned from a neighbor that his father was in debt, had to sell the house, and was so ashamed that he had kept it from his own family until the very night they had to leave for Madras (instead of the suburban area where they were living). And that was it, young Trisha was cut off from him. She went through the next two years in a daze, feeling nothing and speaking to no one, not even singing any more. Until on graduation day she went and sat at his desk and embraced the table where he used to sit. And then we are back in the present to see modern Trisha looking as emotional and scared as she did back then, not having grown up or away from this romance after all. It started when they were children, but it wasn’t a childish love. And when she goes to talk to Vijay, he faints, just as he did as a teenager.
It is this moment that thrusts us into the “real” film, the one that is just about these two people and what is happening in their hearts. We need that casual opening, the jokes from the other reunion people, the flashback to their earlier moments of romance before it deepened as the school year went on, so we can see how different their connection is, how alone they are in it. Their families never knew (we hardly see their families in the past or present), only their schoolmates. And even their schoolmates didn’t fully understand the depth of their bond then, or now.
Trisha is married with a child, and all their friends are nervous seeing how she is aggressively going after Vijay, sharing her food with him, looking at him or for him all the time. And how Vijay has no control around her, sweating and nervous. This isn’t the light nostalgic slightly embarrassing reunion they were expecting, this is something far deeper.
And if it had been that nostalgic reunion, it would be something the film audience has already seen before. Everything from Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbo to Salt Mango Tree has had the plot of the middle aged couple who flirted in school being reunited. But it is treated as something that was in the past, that brings up happy feelings now but is nothing in the greater sea of life experience. That was part of growing up. That’s what the audience at first, and the school friends, are expecting. A love story that was in the past and can now be laughed about by everyone. But this film is showing something very different.
There are different kinds of romantic love in the world, and in the world of films. That first exciting crush, that can be something that slowly grows into a life long love. Akaash-Vani, for instance, did a wonderful job showing this kind of bond. They were attracted, they liked each other, and then they dated for 4 years and grew to really know each other and love each other for who they were. Or it can be just a crush that never really grows, Manmarziyaan did a great job of showing this, a passionate love that burns out. It’s one of my favorite things about Indian film, that they are willing to show those stories, the way a steady stable long term love can overshadow even the most passionate youthful connection. But this movie is dealing with something really special and really rare, the true soulmates, the halves of the same whole who cannot be if they are not together.
I believe in the concept of soulmates. I don’t believe they are always romantic. Your best friend can be your soulmate, or your parent, or your child. That person who makes you feel like you are fully you, in a way you are not when you are not with them. This movie is dealing with soulmates who spent 22 years apart, 22 years being never fully happy, never fully anything, just existing but not living.
It’s a lot for a film to argue, that a childish love story was in fact something these two people have never, and will never, get past. So the film builds to it slowly. Vijay is warned from spending time with Trisha by his friends, because they see it as a simple matter of marital infidelity. He leaves her at her hotel, but he can’t go beyond that, there is a wonderful touch that she rushes from the car without closing the door, and when she comes back out to him, the door is still open, he couldn’t even move enough to close it.
And so they start driving, no plan in place, the first place they go is a barber shop, and she insists on him shaving off his beard and getting his hair cut as it was when he was a teenager. They are trying to go back in time, to close the chapter that never finished. If she is a teenager again, they can confess their love and say good-bye. And she pushes for that conversation, once he is back to looking like a teen, she asks why he never married, looking for closure by learning more about his life. Only to learn that he didn’t marry because a girl proposed to him and he told her he was still in love with Trisha. And Trisha finds herself admitting that she looked for him all the time, straight through college, even at her wedding she was waiting for him to appear. They tried to make their romance something that was in the past, that was just about a haircut and nostalgia, but the truth came out, and their love crawled forward from high school to college, not just “96” of the title, not 22 years ago, but as recent as 16 years ago.
And then it comes all the way to the present when Vijay says he did come for her, and she turned him away and Trisha breaks down. She runs from his car into the hotel, he stumbles after her and picks up her shoes from the hallway carpet. Her emotions now, in this moment and not in the past, are so strong that she literally ran out of her shoes. He finds her sobbing hysterically in the realization that their love story did not end because of them, but because of fate. For years, they had both been stumbling through life, thinking the other did not care. He left school when she was 16 and never made an effort to reach out to her, an effort she could not make because she was watched and restricted by her family. She thought he stopped caring. And he had followed and watched her all those years, finally come to her school to propose, only to be turned away because she thought he was a different boy. He thought she had outgrown him, moved on. Until this moment, they had both been struggling all night to take what they needed, learn about the other but not connect, to keep living with their lonely broken hearts. But now it is all different, as they both discover that their hearts are not lonely after all, the love is still there, has been there all along, and all they had to do was reach out and take it. And there is no more denying that the love is still there, as strong as ever.
This is such a sad movie. Because it is two people who will never be fully happy or fully alive again after this one night. It is a beautiful movie, and a unique movie, for how it develops that truth. This isn’t a matter if simply mouthing “I love you”s, this is showing it, in every gesture and expression. In the music softly playing behind them, in the way they are shown traveling alone through a night time world. The last third is the two characters being fully aware that they love each other, and knowing that they have only a few hours left to be together. There is no more pretense that this is/was just a high school thing, that they will ever “get over” it. Their lives have forever gone wrong and will never come right. Trisha tells the “right” story, when they bump into Vijay’s students, she imagines what would have happened if she had gone down to him when she was in college instead of sending him away, and they married and were together until today. It is what should have happened, there is no other possible universe in which they could ever be happy, ever be healthy and whole. To put it in science fiction terms, they are living in a parallel universe, one where everything went wrong somehow and they are being given this glimpse of a world where it went right.
The saddest part of the film, to me, is that they still have a chance, they still could make the choices that would set things right, and they don’t. They go back to Vijay’s apartment and Trisha talks about finding him a wife, trying to retreat to the lie that things will work out. But it falls apart quickly, by the time they are at the airport, she is begging for just a few more minutes with him. He buys a ticket on the same flight, to Singapore, so he can be with her until the gate. It’s a nice small moment but, I think, it was also on purpose to show the audience how easy it would be for him to take that next step, to get on the plane with her, to go to Singapore and meet her daughter and her husband and see if they can somehow be together still. But, he doesn’t. They choose misery when happiness is still in their grasp.
I know that in India and the Indian film world marriages are hard to break. And in any world, a marriage is a serious thing when there is a child involved. But this is a movie that has already broken the rules, already shown that the connection between them goes beyond any simple social rules. And it is a movie that has already shown how the price of following those little restrictions instead of breaking through them was a lifetime of unhappiness. If Trisha hadn’t been stuck in a girl’s college where she couldn’t talk to boys, if Vijay hadn’t been shy about getting in touch with her for 5 years, if Trisha had tried harder to get in touch with him, they could have had their happy ending. The fear of simple small rule breaking kept them locked in place. And it is still keeping them locked, they say good-bye at the airport like it is a forever good-bye, no discussion of phone calls or emails, or of planning to meet again. They are accepting their fate, instead of fighting against it, even in the smallest degree.
To me, that is the tragedy of the film. That they are a couple that still feels locked in those childish roles, that they won’t make an effort to reach for happiness. That this night, in the end, will change nothing because they won’t let it change things.
I see that there were various accusations of “inspiration” for this film, including a Hollywood film Blue Jay (totally disagree with that, the only thing they seem to have in common is reunited high school sweethearts which is hardly an unusual concept). But to me what it reminds me of the most is the Before series. And I would love for it to continue the way that series did, with a great leap into the unknown for the romantic genre.
The Before series started with a small film Before Sunrise featuring two young actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy playing a young couple who meet and spend a long night together. They are in Europe, Ethan Hawke is an American student traveling through, Julie Delpy is French. It starts as a silly pick-up on a train between a young man and a pretty girl. But then they spend the night talking and it grows into something much deeper than any logic says it should be. At the end, they promise to meet again in 6 months. What made it special was this amazing bond that formed between the two characters, much more than the typical simple romantic film story. It’s the same bond that is built in the flashbacks in this film, starting like the usual high school romance and becoming so much more than that.
9 years later, the same cast and director returned to these characters in Before Sunset. It is supposed to be “too late”. He is married with children, lives in America, she has a life in France and a boyfriend. And they only have an hour before his plane home takes off. Their conversation slowly moves from the general and casual to something deeper and deeper and it becomes apparent that the same magical connection is there. The ending is open, they haven’t said anything, but he stays with her and misses his plane home. That was a bit of a change from how this “true love is the love you have to leave behind you” plot usually goes, to leave the ending open, that they aren’t just saying a wistful good-bye at the airport.
But what makes me really admire the series is the leap they took with the most recent film Before Midnight (I say “most recent” and not “last” because it is possible the team will continue checking in with these characters every 9 years for the next few decades). We come back 9 years later to find that they took the leap. Ethan left his wife and his marriage, he and Julie built a new life together, they didn’t just accept heartbreak and regret after that second meeting, they took it as a real second chance. Which doesn’t mean life is perfect, this film is about a couple’s getaway weekend that is really a chance for them to fight and air all their issues away from their children. But they still love each other, and they are still happy they took that leap.
That’s the real groundbreaking decision of the series, to not give us the tidy UNhappy ending that these films usually offer, to not say “and then it became a memory that always haunted them” but instead to say “and then they made a decision to reach for happiness because that is the right of everyone, and yes it was messy, and yes it made people unhappy, but you can do it”. That’s what I want for this movie. I want a sequel called “16” which comes 5 years later and shows Trisha and Vijay living together, dealing with shared custody of her daughter, with the judgement of society, with all those challenges, but still happy that they didn’t let it go with that night, that they took a leap and reached for happiness instead of bending to the meaningless rules of society. And I feel like it is not impossible, we don’t end on a wistful return to real life, we end on continuing pain, Vijay still has his suitcase of memories and will not marry. And Trisha sobs on an airplane. This is not a story with a nice clean ending.