Cast: Ehan Bhat, Edilsy Vargas, Lisa Ray, Manisha Koirala, Ranjit Barot
Director: Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy
Producer: A R Rahman
Genre: Romance Music
Duration: 2 hrs 13 mins
99 Songs begins with a father telling his son, “Indha ulagathula irukkara ketta pazhakkangal vyaadhigal ellathayum vida kodumayanadhu… music.”. It is the kind of shocking statement that makes one sit up and pay attention straight away, especially because the film’s story is by AR Rahman!
The son, Jay (Ehan Bhat, who looks the part of a brooding musician), is inexplicably drawn to music. As he says, “Music oru bodhai.” And the film narrates his journey to prove that music is, as one character puts it, the last bit of magic in this world. Jay’s journey to this end is brought about by his girlfriend, Sophia’s (Edilsy Vargas, who is presented as someone as exotic as her art) father, Sanjay Singhania (Ranjit Barot), who sees music more as a commodity. When Jay tells him he wants to compose songs, he tells him that people who have gone in pursuit of art have only ended up ignoring their families. He challenges Jay to prove that one song can change the world, and the latter takes it up. But the catch… he cannot meet or even talk to Sophia until then!
It is no surprise that music is the driving force of 99 Songs. The film is largely narrated through songs, and director Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy shoots both the scenes and the songs more like a music video, with sleek visuals (Tanay Satam and James Cowley are the cinematographers), rapid cuts, minimal dialogues (the Tamil lines are by Gautham Vasudev Menon) and glossy production design (Aparna Raina). In fact, this approach is also the film’s drawback because the scenes don’t linger long enough for the emotions to linger with us. The images fleet across the screen, like in a dream. This approach seems intentional and while this ensures that the surreal elements in the film don’t stick out, the breathless editing (by Akshay Mehta and Shreyas Beltangdy) lessens the emotional impact. In fact, it makes the crucial sub-plot about how Jay’s father came to hate music feel underdeveloped.
The non-linear narrative is challenging to the viewer, at least initially, because we don’t get scenes that provide an emotional anchor for us to care about the characters. This is why when Jay breaks out into the songs, Sophia or Punnagai Maayai Ival, we feel a sense of something amiss, because we neither know who Jay or Sophia is. The film asks us to right away buy into this romance, but given that this turns into something epic (in addition to the idea of a musician and a speech-challenged artist being in love, it also has echoes of the Ambikapathi-Amaravathi legend when you consider Jay’s journey to create 100 songs while staying apart from Sophia), we wish the film had given us a few scenes setting up the romance, at least through a couple of the romantic songs that pepper the first half). In fact, the arc involving Jay and Polo (Tenzin Dalha, a solid presence), his college friend, is better developed and feels much more wholesome.
But then, later in the film, we realise that more than the romance, Rahman and Vishwesh are trying to make a larger statement, about the power of music and how it can change the world. The film never lets go of this core thought, and constantly finds new ways to say this repeatedly, succeeding mostly, and appearing naive at times (like in the scenes involving a politician). We even get a scene — between Jay and Sheila (Lisa Ray), a jazz singer, who helps him expand his musical boundaries — where music is shown as something sensual. And once we settle into the fractured narrative rhythm of the film, things get better. There are even some transcendental moments, like the scene which shows how a young Jay came to imbibe the music from around him, and the one where we see him play with the threads of kites imagining them to be the strings of a music instrument. And even though the final portions, like the beginning, feel rushed, Rahman’s entrancing music and the spectacular visuals keep us glued till the end.