Look Around: Cinema of the neighborhood - 96
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13 December 2018

These are the times when telugu cinema has indeed started to spread its wings and soar above formulaic, assembly line offerings. The change is no less because of the increased exposure of the audience and the makers to movies beyond the geographical and conventional boundaries. In this age of open information, cinema cannot but open up. Keeping in step, presents a new series - Look Around - that aims to shine a light on the brilliant cinema made beyond our borders, and thanks to all the streaming platforms and subtitling options, should rarely be missed by film enthusiasts. Entertainment cannot be guaranteed here, but engagement, surely...

The first seasonal shower empties its heavy heart and passes on. The rain water on the ground line up into tiny streams and snake their way into the drains. The skies, after a face wash, appear pleasantly clear. After the din of the downpour dies down, the sound of anklets of the rivulets rushing along the ground, together with the steady drip of the drops jumping off the branches and trees keep the idea of the passing shower still fresh in the minds. While the rest in a hurry shrug off the moisture and start the drying process, the leaves hang on to the feeling a little longer, nestling whatever droplets it could hold on to in their cradles, allowing the drops to teeter close to the precipice, one at a time, have them dance on the edge for a little bit, before letting them take the final plunge into obscurity. Nostalgia is pretty much like that. It allows the memories to be safely ensconced in its folds and with the passage of time lets go of all....until the next seasonal shower, when the parched minds quickly put together their hands and have the memories fill back in those cradles to let them play the sliding game all over again, slowly, lovingly and longingly.

"'96" is an ode to the bygone era, but with a twist that it longs and lingers not so much on the times gone by, but on the opportunities that passed by. There are two aspects that really play up the effect of nostalgia - 1. Wishfulness 2. Wistfulness. While the former plays with possibility, the latter is rooted in reality. Wishfulness dreams about a time and place and situation when opportunities seem to come with no strings attached. Wishfulness is all about the potential - the girl from school/college just waiting/wanting to hear from the guy about his feelings for her that she could reciprocate; the academic/career path that one could excel in going by the interest levels; all the relationships that could be maintained till eternity. And Wistfulness comes from the path not taken - the girl who never heard from the boy and so went in different directions, the career path of interest that ultimately was traded in favor of a safer, dull option, the people who were so dear once bu no longer are a part of the larger scheme of things. At the intersection of this possibility and practicality, where dreams collide with reality, is where this nostalgic smoke rises out of burned down hopes, desires, aspirations and wishes, the embers of which never die down.

The setup of '96 is pretty simple. School reunion. Friends meet. Ex-flames cross paths. That's about it. While the character traits of the hero - reservedness, shyness and a general sense of fright - seem straight enough reasons for why they do not end up together, the focus is not so much why it COULDN'T happen, but rather on why it DIDN'T happen. And that this aspect revealed over the lead couple just sitting across each other for pretty much the length of the movie and talking it over, is pretty unique in regional cinema. Though it borrows the structure from Richard Linklater's "Before..." (Sunset, Sunrise and Midnight) series, which is about a couple talking it over a period of few hours about themselves first, everything around next, and about them together last to see if they are a right fit for each other by the end of the movie, '96 takes what is essentially an introspective study and turns it into an interrogative procedural of why the two didn't become a couple, in the least melodramatic way possible, despite the best of intentions on both sides. It is this near realism that amps up the nostalgic quotient, because the die is already cast and there are no second chances, and the characters have to live by what the situation has dealt them with. Wishfulness and wistfulness at their best.

Two technical aspects tower over the rest, not for how sumptuously they have been utilized, but rather how sparingly, reservedly and controlled their usage has been to heighten the intimacy. The first is the background score, which only has a piano chiming in once in a while, not to accentuate anything but merely to underscore or even punctuate the emotion. While there certainly are moments where the string section can be put to full use to tug at the hearts for the fullest, the director wisely choses the sound of silence for most of the moments as though to indicate that the freshness of the past can never be recreated and all that remains is the quiet reconciliation with the reality. The second is the photography, which like the profession of the protagonist as a travel photographer, is still, resolute and patient, capturing the action set in front of it than chasing and capturing it in jazzy eye popping visuals. There is nothing photogenic about characters beaking down pouring their hearts out, or slowly piecing their lives together in each other's company and the camera treats the moments with the respect and distance they deserve, without the use of any fancy lighting schemes nor any unusual camera angles to draw the attention away.

Vijay Sethupathi bags the more symapthetic role between the duo, showing a stark contrast in his body language between his time with his lady love, bringing back all the nervousness and timidity and as a recluse in his professional life, aloof and meditative. For every successful love story during the adolescenece, there are hundreds more unrequited, unrealized and unheralded, each with a different set of reasons for its failure and '96 tries to gain an insight into one such with all the sincerety and honesty of falling in love in the first place.

Kaatru Veliyidai

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