A.R. Rahman, the legendary musician from India who has also made a name for himself in the global music arena, had apparently penned the script for “99 Songs” back in 2011. The film was announced in 2013 under a different banner, when Rahman decided that he would produce the film under his own YM Movies. So after almost a decade since its inception, the film finally launched on Netflix in April under Rahman’s production.
“99 Songs”, a dream project of Rahman, and also his debut work as a film-writer and producer, is supposedly a love saga. Of course, it was always going to be a musical with Rahman composing the music. Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy directs the Hindi-language movie which has also been dubbed in Tamil and Telugu.
It is kind of complicated to explain the film’s story in so many words because with Rahman’s imaginations coming into play, the storyline becomes a mix of simple yet complicated plots. Jay (Ehan Bhat), a college student and an aspiring musician, is in love with his college mate Sophie (Edilsy Vargas), a budding fashion designer/visual artist.
When Sophie’s music mogul father Sanjay Singhania (Ranjit Barod) hears about their affair, he approaches Jay with a condition he has to fulfil before he can marry Sophie. Sanjay is developing an AI streaming service for which he needs 100 songs and Jay is to compose all those songs before he can marry Sophie.
Jay agrees and as his friend and bandmate Polo (Tenzin Dalha) suggests, he heads out to Shillong because “it is the best place in the world to make music.” In Shillong, Jay starts off well with writing new music but quickly loses inspiration. So Polo gets him a job as a pianist at the local jazz bar where Jay meets the mysterious singer Sheela (Lisa Ray) who later becomes his mentor and close friend. Then disaster strikes and things take a bad turn for our protagonists and their aides.
In all honesty, 99 Songs feels like it draws a lot of influence from past Bollywood films, as if Rahman did a school project on Bollywood films as he watched them by the dozens. The film itself starts like a Karan Johar production and in the latter half becomes something Sanjay Leela Bhansali would make. You’ll have to watch the movie to understand the connection.
Also, the widely publicized news about the makers auditioning more than 1,000 people for lead roles seems fake news. Acting is much below par, with lead actors Ehan Bhat and Edilsy Vargas desperately failing to display the passion their characters demand. Their dialogue delivery feels like they are acting in a high-school play staged by science students who’d rather go back to studying than give extra effort to their performance. The north-east Indian characters in the film, including Tenzin Dalha as Polo, are the only cast who look natural. Everyone else is either trying too hard or not bothered at all.
Now comes the most disappointing part of the movie. For a film written, produced (Rahman), directed (Krishnamoorthy) and also acted (Barod/Rahul Ram) by musicians, the music of 99 Songs is painfully underwhelming. Rahman does try to assimilate all his musical influences into this musical production, but not a single soundtrack stands out. The genres of music vary from Indian classical to modern pop and rap but nothing sounds even a fraction like the musical benchmark Rockstar (2011), where Rahman gave some of the most memorable music ever created in Bollywood. Had it not been for the film’s excellent cinematography and editing, the 2hr 8mins long film would have been totally unwatchable.
Who should watch it?
A word of caution: maybe my high expectations from a Rahman musical were too high. As mentioned, the cinematography is beautiful. And a plus of us Nepalis is, our own Manisha Koirala is in the film as a psychologist, although her role could have been given to any real-life medico and nobody would have noted a difference. Still, there are a few moments in this highly layered film that can be entertaining for some, especially Rahman fans.