’99 Songs’ is written and composed by musical maestro A.R. Rahman, so we can’t expect a run-of-the-mill song and dance movie. Director Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy understands that too and delivers a visual treat at the heart of which is the crux of the film: “Music is the last surviving magic in the world”. Unfortunately they sacrifice a lot of other notes in pursuit of this magic.
Jai (Ehan Bhat) is a passionate musician, despite his late father’s life-long attempts at discouraging him from pursuing music. Excited about his life after graduating from college, he approaches his girlfriend Sophie’s (Edilsy Vargas) father for her hand in marriage. Ofcourse, says Sanjay Singhania (Ranjit Barot), as long as you join the family business and help me establish the biggest music platform in the world. Jai rejects the offer. He’s a musician, not a businessman. A vexed Singhania suddenly adopts the role of the ultimate Indian father – the murderer of dreams. He mocks Jai for his naïve belief that his music can change the world and challenges him. You write 100 songs and then, only then will I consider letting you marry my daughter, Singhania tells him. So Jai packs his bags and begins the search for his 100 songs.
This is not a film you watch for the plot. ’99 Songs’ is about aesthetic and vibes. The music is unfortunately inconsistent, but the choreography and visual aesthetics are compelling. As mesmerizing the highs are, the lows feel equally as disappointing. The narrative sections of the film only serve to progress the plot, as bridges between two music videos. The plot itself is predictable. But to enjoy the film, the viewer needs to understand that the plot is not the point here. Film as a medium allows artists to explore so much more than just the story, and ’99 Songs’ does just that. This journey is about feelings, connections and music.
While Ehan Bhat and Edilsy Vargas shine in the musical parts of the film, the narrative sections are engaging only thanks to the supporting cast. Ranjit Barot as a rich businessman seems to be having so much fun. Tenzin Dalha as Polo and his whole family in Shillong bring such great warmth and energy to the film. Lisa Ray is stunning as the sultry Jazz singer, although her on-stage looks are a little underwhelming. She commands each scene she is in, making it unable to take our eyes off her.
’99 Songs’ is often reminiscent of a visual album rather than a piece of narrative fiction. In fact, it is so compelling to watch when it leans into the sensibilities of a visual album, even if it loses all steam when it switches to a narrative. Often, the intense emotions of the musical sections suddenly become cheesy when the same things are repeated through dialogue. Nevertheless, ’99 Songs’ is an interesting experiment among the formulaic mundanity of Bollywood and it deserves to be recognized for daring to present a new perspective.