Vijay Sethupathi suggested that I direct 96: Prem Kumar

Marooned by the 2015 floods, Prem Kumar just had with him one notebook to ideate and write the script of 96. He had missed his school reunion due to work, but the stories he heard from the meet gave him an idea for a script. The rains had just started as he began to sketch his story and soon, it was chaos. “I couldn’t have got myself more paper, had I needed it. There was no power, and once the candles ran out, I used my mom’s kuthuvilaku for light,” he says. He could only write at night, as the mornings were devoted to fetching basic supplies. “And it turned out to be a story that unfolds in one night,” adds Prem with a smile.

Having entered the cinema industry with the goal of becoming a writer, Prem considers writing 96 an achievement in itself. “I have accomplished what I set out to. I would have been happy even if this hadn’t taken off,” he says.

It was Vijay Sethupathi who suggested that Prem should direct the film himself. “Sethu was the first person I ever approached for a film. So I was a bit nervous. But luckily, he had no expectations from me as a writer. In fact, he expected a rehash of some Korean drama,” says Prem, with a laugh. “But he loved that the story was original and unique. And he also said that I should direct the film myself to keep the mood in tact.”

The script was Prem’s selling point. Everyone from music director Govind Vasantha to the lyricists were narrated the entire script. The former’s music has received rave reviews before the film’s release. The litmus test for Govind and him, Prem tells us, was to ensure that the tunes made their eyes well up. “He gave me tunes that went with the scenes I had in my mind. That’s Govind. You can give him an unusual mood and you will get your tune.”

Prem also believes that the lyricists, Karthik Netha and Uma Devi, played a huge part in the success of the album. While Karthik was a friend, there was some apprehension about approaching Uma Devi, who had tasted success with ‘Maya Nadhi’. “She is a college professor and writes lyrics on her commute. Romba gambeeramanavanga avanga. When I narrated my story, she was in tears and agreed to do the film.”

Prem’s experience as a cinematographer helped him immensely with direction. “Cinematography helps you understand editing. While we might get the scene from a screenwriter, as a cinematographer, you automatically segregate it into shots. It helped me be precise. In fact, even the actors were doubtful that we were done when I said we were,” he quips, adding that his experience with debutant directors helped him learn from their strengths and weaknesses as well.

“My ideas are present in all aspects of the film. It’s all the director’s responsibility.” And there was quite a lot on the plate, given he had two big stars, Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha, on board. Prem recalls the tension on the sets on the first day of shoot with Trisha. “She is very silent. I was nervous and asked her to forgive us if things go wrong.” But he adds that Trisha was one of the easiest stars to direct. “Since Sethu and I were friends, we used to have discussions. Trisha, on the other hand, immediately adapts to whatever is being said and brings in her own style as well.”

Despite being a cinematographer himself, Prem says that he didn’t interfere much with his cinematographer’s vision. “I didn’t want cinematic shots. I wanted the staging to be natural. Once the sets were ready, I asked everyone to leave the room so as to not disturb the performance. The cameramen were incredibly supportive,” he says, adding, “There are several intense scenes and it would have been taxing to get the actors do the same thing multiple times. So most of our scenes were shot with a two-camera set up; sometimes three. We also used a different way of lighting. It might look simple but it was all quite challenging to shoot.”

This was first originally written for The New Indian Express. You can find it here.

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