Let us address the elephant in the room before we go any further: Jaanu is not as good as '96, the acclaimed 2018 Tamil movie by the same director starring Vijay and Trisha. Does that mean Jaanu is a lousy movie? Not at all - far from it.
Director C Prem Kumar's story is about the effects of one's first love. It is about the lasting shadow it casts upon one's life. When looked at through that specific lens, '96 looms as a massive specter over Jaanu while simultaneously being a source of warmth and nostalgia to its viewing audience. Jaanu, however, isn't a film that accepts that it is second best without putting up a fight.
K Ramachandra, aka Ram (Sharwanand), is a travel photographer. He chooses photography as his line of work because he likes to capture a split second of eternally fleeting time and make it his own. Like his pictures, he, too, is stationary. Time stopped for him when he fell in love with Jaanu during his days as a student at St Aloysius High School. Seventeen years after this experience, time stops for him again as Jaanu (Samantha Akkineni) reenters his life through a high school reunion. Jaanu and Ram find themselves with a rare chance to reconnect and find closure.
While the simple pleasures of this movie come in the forms of an abundance of nostalgic elements and a tenderly constructed love story that most everyone in the audience can relate to, there is more to it than meets the eye. The film's writing delicately places its richly defined characters in elegantly etched scenarios. The people add depth to the situations they are in and vice versa.
Take, for example, a split-second shot of Ram and one of his students driving past a temple he used to frequent when he was younger. The student tries to offer a quick prayer as they drive by. Ram scolds her for this by saying that it was a temple HE prayed at and visited. Ram's world is one that is built by him to service him and him alone.
This extends to his relationship with Jaanu as well. The concoction of Ram's years-long relationship with her comes without ever really interacting with Jaanu for an extended period. The Jaanu in Ram's mind is one that is constructed to suit his needs and to keep him functioning day by day. Ram finds himself lost for words when confronted with a version of Jaanu that isn't one he has constructed or is comfortable being around.
We pick the perfect moments we want to capture as photographs - that is in our control. However, a life that is out of our control consistently happens all around those perfect moments.
Jaanu, the character, however, isn't too far behind in the character sphere, either. Jaanu is a fully formed woman instead of being a figment of male fantasies we are subject to every week in cinema halls all across the country. While Ram feels stuck in time, Jaanu's wealth of life experience shines through in every conversation she has with the former. In one of the most emotionally potent scenes of the film, Jaanu illustrates how different their lives would have been had they been a tad more mature in their youth, and how she has reached that state of maturity in her life while Ram has not.
This instance doesn't say that Jaanu is a perfect embodiment of all that is great in the world. Far from it - her vulnerabilities find their way out when she finds herself in Ram's company. Jaanu's vulnerabilities force her into having new life experiences, which is in stark contrast with Ram's weaknesses which force him to stay where he is.
What could bring such thoughtful writing down? Almost nothing. Almost.
The downside of Jaanu, the film, is the lack of subtlety scattered across it. The film's title has an evident nature to it, and so does the opening song that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The film lays its stakes down so thickly that they are unmissable. It is the difference between titling a film Vinnaithandi Varuvaya (will you cross the skies for me) and Jessie. Both movies are about the same subject matter, but one is more poetic, and the other is quite literal.
This sensation of "similar but not the same" extends to the young man who portrays the younger version of Ram. Sai Kiran Kumar looks like a spitting image of a young Sharwanand but is not as talented an actor as his older counterpart. While Gouri G Kishan adds depth and personality to the more youthful iteration of Jaanu, Kumar takes some of the impact away from this section of the movie.
But this is made up for in spades by the duo of Samantha Akkineni and Sharwanand. While Samantha delivers a strong performance as she does quite regularly, Sharwanand goes far beyond what was asked of him to dole out an acting masterclass for the ages. Redefining a beloved character is quite a hard task for even the bravest of actors, but Sharwanand does it to perfection. His 35-year-old eyes and shoulders seem to be carrying the weight and sadness of a man twice his age.
It is a mesmerizing transformation aided by a soothing background score, memorable tracks, and gentle camerawork. While Govind Vasanth offers a more opulent score to this iteration of the story when compared to the relatively barebones nature of the score in the original, the visual aesthetic remains the same. The calming effect the world has on the characters inhabiting it and the audience witnessing it is quite palpable. The film, too, has many shots of everyday items just a tad out of sync with each other. This choice is akin to the names Ramachandra and Janaki Devi, being almost similar to Ram and Seetha but not quite the same. Now that is subtlety at its sneaky best.
And that is why both Jaanu and '96 will stand the test of time as cleverly written, well-acted and competently directed films. Jaanu is the Ye Maya Chesave
to '96's Vinnaithandi Varuvaya. It is up to the audiences to pick their vial of elixir. And in a weird twist of fate, Trisha Krishnan and Samantha Akkineni find themselves essaying the same roles yet again. Maybe time has stopped for a few hours indeed.