While I watched the new Vijay Sethupathi blockbuster "'96", I couldn't help thinking back to Anurag Kashyap's "Manmarziyaan" where Vicky Kaushal and Taapsee Pannu couldn't keep their hands off each other.
In "'96", if Sethupathi's hand accidently touches Trisha's hand he recoils as though hit by an electric current.
And no one laughs. The myth that today's generations equates love with lust and a love relationship without sex is like a meal without dessert, is effectively demolished in this game-changing love story. In this era of lustful cynicism, it requires a whole lot of guts to make a film as plunged in the platonic as a seer immersed in his holy chants that no amount of temptation can detract him from.
Ram in "'96" played by Vijay Sethupathi loves Janu (Trisha Krishna) with religious devotion. For the want of a better word, worship is what Ram does. For half the film, the younger Ram, played with brooding vulnerability by young Adithya Bhaskar, sits in the classroom glancing anxiously at Janu. He cannot speak to her. On her birthday friends have to bodily lift him and bring him to her to say "Happy Birthday".
Then school ends. The love-smitten pair go their separate ways. Twenty-two years later they reunite at a college reunion. The sparks fly. Ram still won't say the three magical words. He would rather just adore his beloved, a sort of Radha in reverse worshipping Krishna.
The movie provides a refreshingly revisionist look at love and romance. There are no villains separating the couple in love. The culprit is the hero's taciturnity rooted in his spiritual attachment to the object of his adoration. He can't bring himself to confess his love even when he gets a chance to do so 22 years later.
I fell in love with this ostensibly obsolete variety of love where once the love confession is made the magic disappears. Ram won't say it aloud. He is willing to pay the price. He will remain without his loved one all his life. But he won't drag his sublime feelings down to earth. Let them float freely in the universe. Let love be.
That's what Gulzar wrote in one of his finest love songs: "Humne dekhi hai unn aankhon ki mehekti khushboo, haath se chuke issey rishton ka ilzaam naa do; sirf ehsaas hai yeh rooh se mehsoos karo, pyar ko pyar hi rehne do koi naam na do."
"'96" is a unique take on love. This is love with no strings attached. Sex is not even a thought. The delicately persuasive film says, in not so many words, that love remains even when the one you love is not with you physically. To make a film so passionate lucid, engaging and moving about the idea of love, requires a whole lot of guts.
Regional cinema ceased to be regional long ago. The sooner Bollywood recognises it, the better. This romance between two people passed their prime can comfortably be made into Hindi. All the superstars in Hindi cinema are beyond 50. All they have to do is agree to work with one of their co-stars from 10 years ago instead of insisting on being paired with girls half their age.
A rare and precious film like "'96" pricks the patriarchal bubble effectively. The Rajni-Kamal brand of romancing is over in Tamil cinema. Bollywood's superstars too need to accept their age. If Salman Khan behaves like an eight-year-old, as he did in Tubelight, there will be hell to pay.
(Subhash K. Jha can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)