99 Songs Movie Review: This AR Rahman musical misses a lot of notes
While there is no doubt that this lofty ideal is heartwarming, the translation of the same on screen doesn't quite cut it
It is appropriate that AR Rahman has written the story of 99 Songs. The film works on the belief that “music is the last surviving magic in the world” and who better than Rahman to try and prove it. With 99 Songs, the ace composer, with help from screenwriter and director Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, aims to proclaim that music can change the world. While there is no doubt that this lofty ideal is heartwarming, the translation of the same on screen doesn't quite cut it.
Cast: Ehan Bhat, Edilsy Vargas, Tenzin Dalha, Manisha Koirala, Lisa Ray
Director: Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy
99 Songs is essentially about a gifted musician finding it in himself to compose 100 songs to reclaim the love of his life. Both the reason for his reclamation and the love story at the centre of it all are flimsy. If one can’t empathise with the lovers in a love story, there's a problem. When we meet Jay (Ehan Bhat in a promising debut) and Sophia (Edilsy Vargas), they are already head-over-heels in love. Jay is a musician, and Sophia, who is mute, is an acclaimed painter. Their worlds have seemingly met already. The writers choose to waste no time in the meet-cutes and wooing, but 99 Songs is a film that might have actually benefitted from some of that. The blossoming of this love story would have lent a lot of poignancy considering the complexities of their equation. Meanwhile, what the film does expand upon beautifully is the friendship between Jay and Polo (an assured Tenzin Dalha). Right from Jay standing up for Polo when the latter faces racial abuse in college, to Polo opening the doors of his Shillong house to facilitate Jay’s quest for 100 songs, their friendship is the lifeline of the film. In fact, it is Polo’s actions that have a bigger bearing on Jay’s life than Sophia’s.
It is in these Shillong portions that we are introduced to Lisa Ray and Manisha Koirala, who play thankless cameos just to further Jay’s journey. At least, Lisa’s jazz singer Sheela has a song where she exudes a whole lot of pizzazz. Manisha, on the other hand, is criminally underutilised as the head of a rehab centre. Interestingly, it is in Shillong that we also see Rahman bring to screen his long-standing grudge against musicians being painted as druggies or alcoholics. Jay refuses to smoke up or drink and still manages to write 100 songs.
While there is a lot of clarity with regards to the character arc of Jay, and, to an extent, Polo, the others are disappointingly one-note. 99 Songs is also about two fathers with contrasting, yet weirdly similar takes on music. If Jay’s father pulls off a Abhimaan Amitabh Bachchan to wrest music away from a young Jay, Sophia’s father wants his prospective son-in-law to approach music more as a business and not as passion. These layers don’t really add up to give us a coherent film.
The biggest strength of 99 Songs is the cinematography of Tanay Satam and James Cowley. Their mesmerising visuals bring in a magical quality to the film, which aspires to be a mythical musical. Be it the song sequences or the dream world inhabited by Jay, or even Sophia suddenly tapping into her inner gothness, the play with colours in 99 Songs keeps afloat its rather wafer-thin plot. The visuals also do an excellent job of enhancing the other strength of the film — the music. However, the visual extravaganza acts more as a standalone feature rather than cohering with the narrative.
While the tale of a tortured soul going around the world to create music has been seen in quite a few films, some with Rahman’s music itself, 99 Songs does manage to pique our interest. However, in the search of that 'one song to change our world', 99 Songs swaps ingenuity for incredulity. When the simple love story at the centre is forgotten to drum in the message about the power of music, the film loses its bearings. While there is no doubt that music does have the power to heal and to bring in a change and a lot more, the suspension of disbelief 99 Songs demands in the climactic portions proves to be a bit too much.
Riddled with questionable narrative choices but impressive visuals, 99 Songs still has a lot going for it. With raw performers with a lot of talent, a stellar support cast, and of course, Rahman's brilliant music, 99 Songs could have been the Rockstar of our times. But courtesy a few missteps, it falls into that special category of Rahman films that we often see crop up on social media — films that don’t quite do justice to Rahman’s music.