Saturday, July 01, 2023

Emotional time-travel (and play-acting) in ’96 and Blue Jay

(Wrote this for my Economic Times column. Please note the AI-generated columnist image for this edition, giving me a pink jacket of the “John Jaani Janardhan” school.)

Favourite old films – the ones that evoke nostalgia or remind us of where we were at a particular time – are often a portal to another dimension; a place where we were different people, with many possibilities ahead of us. So there is a special frisson to be felt when a good film gives us characters who are doing the very same thing – being overwhelmed by a rush of memory or regret. Or even using the engine of the narrative as a means of returning to a supposedly pristine time.

I am thinking about two films – about comparable situations – that involve a form of emotional time-travel. In the indie movie Blue Jay, the protagonists Jim and Amanda run into each other two decades after their high-school romance – and then spend the day together talking, reminiscing, divulging (and concealing) things about their current lives. Meanwhile the lovely Tamil film ’96 is about a school-reunion encounter – and the hours afterward – between Ram and Jaanu (played by Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan), who were very close as classmates 22 years earlier (even “boyfriend-girlfriend” in the loosely defined small-town Indian way) and may have ended up together but for a few simple twists of fate.

Both films have striking moments where play-acting temporarily creates a new reality. In a moving scene in Blue Jay, Jim and Amanda find and listen to an old recording they had made when they were together as teens, madly in love and acting out vignettes about an imagined future (where they are married for decades and finally have time to themselves after the children have left the nest). On the tape – itself a sort of time machine – the precocious youngsters perform their fantasy; in the present day the jaded adults listen to the performance, exchanging glances, amused and sorrowful in turn.

In ’96, Ram and Jaanu end up spending a few hours together before her flight back to Singapore (where a husband and child await her). There has already been some clearing of misunderstandings, a realisation of how fate had tricked them: what if Ram didn’t suddenly have to leave school because of a family situation? What if a message had been properly communicated to Jaanu when she was in a hostel three years later? And now, there is a little moment at a café, late at night, when they chance to run into his students who immediately assume that the woman he is with is his wife. How did your love story begin, ma’am, they gush, in the manner of kids who believe love stories can never end – and Jaanu plays along, responds seriously, telling them what happened all those years ago but amending it to supply a happy ending.

Ram and Jaanu’s movement into the past had really begun a little earlier, with her taking him to a salon and getting his bushy beard shaved off – a playful way of passing the time, but also a way of reanimating the boy she once knew. (Years fall off Sethupathi’s face when that beard goes; when I first saw the film’s trailer, I thought he played Ram in two different periods.) Later they chat in his balcony, a space where they might have spent much time together as a couple in that alternate universe; in a poignant visual gag, they briefly “sleep together” (in a non-sexual sense); at the end, they even enter the airport like a couple going on a holiday. But that’s the last gasp, before reality intrudes.

These scenes in both films also reminded me of the great final stretch of the 1937 classic Make Way for Tomorrow, perhaps the first major film on the “parents neglected by children” theme: in the sequence, two old people, knowing they must soon part, go out on the town by themselves, visiting the places they saw when they first got married – reclaiming their lives and autonomy by returning to an idyllic past when the children weren’t yet born.

But in both ’96 and Blue Jay, there is also this subtext: the “what if” is built around a longing for an idealised past, combined with degrees of discontentment about the present. (Both Jim and Amanda are depressive; though Jaanu says good things about her arranged-marriage husband, but one senses she would turn the clock back if she could.) Yet it is by no means a given that they would have found pure, lasting happiness if that alternate world had come to pass. Time travel may allow us to imagine endlessly, but in life – as in bittersweet cinema – happy endings are hard to come by.

1 comment:

  1. Jai. How did you enjoy 96? I really loved the movie's ability to evoke the thrill of first love and romance. Would love to read an in-depth review by you