Tamil Features

In Appreciation Of Bagavathy Perumal & Devadarshini: A Love Letter To The Third Wheels In ’96’

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96 Movie Stills Starring Vijay Sethupathi, Trisha

*Contains spoilers*

Murali (Bagavathy Perumal) and Subhashini (Devadarshini) effectively set the wheels of 96 in motion. They make everything happen: the reunion, the romance, and also remind the leads – when the need arises – of their separate realities

In ‘96, Subhashini and Murali execute the most thankless job ever. They facilitate a romance between Ram and Jaanu, whose transition from inseparable friends to coy lovers is almost instant. There is a lot of heartache here, mostly because Ram never gets the courage to talk about the emotions that cause his heart to work itself overtime. But it doesn’t matter because his Jaanu understands.

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Subhashini and Murali step in, too. They restrain Ram when it is time for him to confess; they take turns urging Jaanu to sing Ram’s favourite song. They give voice to Ram’s feelings in a way even Ram cannot. When Ram cannot find it in him to talk about his feelings, he turns to Subhashini and whispers them in her ear.

When circumstances force the couple away, Subhashini and Murali are still there, helping Jaanu pick up the pieces. They lay the groundwork for Ram and Jaanu’s reunion. Ram wants to meet his friends. Perhaps he wants to see Jaanu as well. This request is left unspoken; it is unseen as well. But, Murali understands; he does what is necessary. Along with Subhashini, he charms up a magical little place, that both exists and doesn’t, for the star crossed lovers to meet. He handles the guest list. She supervises the food. And when time comes for these third wheels to finally get some recognition, it is waved away. The men and women of All Saints School do not want to know about them. They want Jaanu, and her magical voice. They want to live vicariously through Ram’s adventures as a travel journalist. They don’t want to hear Subhashini talk about the extra food she has ordered. Or Murali go on about those expensive china bulbs that give the reunion a fairy tale touch.

No, they want Jaanu to sing, and Ram to talk.

Ram and Jaanu seem rather selfish in comparison. Ram is a glorified visitor to the event. Being a loner has made him see people and events from a distance.

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He comes up with the idea of the reunion, but does little to make it happen. Jaanu does not even bother to RSVP to the event. But eventually, they both attend. And when they see each other, they don’t have eyes for anyone else in the room. When the initial awkwardness is smoothed over by Murali and Subhashini, they are no longer necessary. They are made to go away, give the former lovers some space.

Bhagavathy Perumal and Devadarshini as Murali and Subhashini in 96.

The third wheels then do what they do best. They quietly retreat into the background, mere foils for a romance that is at once ordinary, and yet not. That is not to say that Murali and Subhashini are ordinary people who can never take centre-stage. In their own lives, they reign supreme. One is handling a late-age pregnancy and a reunion event with elan. The other takes on the mantle of responsibility, always attached to that hands free, in case anybody needs directions to the event. For director C Prem Kumar and the film’s leads, the characters of Murali and Subhashini are mere tools to move the story along. And in the process, add some comedy to the proceedings.

But in casting Bagavathy Perumal and Devadarshini, actors who can be relied upon to not just play but be the supporting character, the story begins to acquire flesh and bones. Perumal and Devadarshini have essayed these roles before – the former in Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kanom and the latter in Kaakha Kaakha. The way they essay Murali and Subhashini makes the film real, in a way that its rather fantastic core (childhood lovers, reunion, and that desperation to sort things out Before Sunrise) cannot do on its own.

At the reunion event in which many of their classmates recede into their childhood memories and antics, Subhashini and Murali are relegated to guardian-like roles. Murali is still the Class Leader, making sure the event goes off without a pause. Subhashini, for a fleeting moment, allows herself to dip deep into her pool of memories. As Jaanu sings, Subha goes back in time to that girl who sat in the first bench of the class. And listened to her best friend sing. The older version’s eyes brim with unshed tears. It’s a lovely little scene, that infuses depth to the character. But the moment is over all too soon. It is time for Subhashini to wipe her eyes and return to her no-nonsense self. The food she has ordered for the event, might not be enough.

Neither Subhashini or Murali enjoys the event as much as the rest of them do. They sense that something could go wrong when Ram and Jaanu finally meet. They worry what this could mean for the family Jaanu has. They fret that the fragile Ram, who has never moved on from his Jaanu, would do something that neither of them can escape. Curiously enough, these thoughts don’t afflict Ram and Jaanu, who seem so energised by being together at last that reality fades away.

Subhashini and Murali exist just to rein them in. They know that Ram and Jaanu had the kind of love Ilaiyaraaja made songs for. But they also know that songs and childhood romance can only go so far. Reality awaits, just around the corner. Even if Ram and Jaanu are willing to close their eyes and pretend that it isn’t, Subhashini and Murali will be around to make them understand and go their separate ways. Loyal, thankless, perpetual third wheel friends who deserve a movie to themselves. The ‘Kaathalae Kaathale‘ song that never made it in its entirety to the final cut of ‘96, can also be an ode to the kind of friends Murali and Subhashini are. Karthik Netha might have written these lyrics for S Janaki Devi and K Ramachandran:

Kaathalae kaathalae thani perunthunaiye…
Kooda vaa kooda vaa pothum pothum

But it is to Murali and Subhashini that they seem most appropriate.

*****

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