AR Rahman’s 99 Songs is easier to admire than love, but there’s a LOT to admire...
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20th March 2020:

A R Rahman, a man who defines my alternate reality, a man whose music I seek to escape the drudgery of everyday living, releases the entire album of his film 99 Songs, to cheer us up as the dreaded pandemic looms large. But I am living in my own bubble as this album has still not caught my attention.

Mid-June:

Casual browsing lands me on the teaser of the movie 99 Songs which has just one instrumental track, ‘The Oracle’. As I play it on my headphones, the track opens with just a few lingering melodious notes on the piano; the tempo gradually increases as notes engage in a clever interplay and even before I realise it, a fleet of violins accompanying the lilting piano notes sweep me off my feet as my spirit soars high and lands effortlessly with the music, all in a matter of 3 minutes. I am stunned by this short flight of fantasy and crave more. So I look up and see that the entire album has been released 3 months back. With great anticipation I play the first track. Again it opens with notes on the piano followed by Shashwat Singh’s soft voice. The singing is so mellow, it’s barely audible (especially with my kids screaming in the background). It’s the kind of music that demands you close your eyes and get lost in its world. Is this again another new version of Rahman? I ponder over it, putting off hearing the album until bedtime. As I play ‘O Aashiqa’ again, I realise that the silence of the night amplifies the effect of the mellifluous track. As Shashwat croons “Phoolon ki chahat mein amrit piya” in his honey-dipped voice, I sense something more than what meets the ear. Just when this realisation hits me, the track completely transforms, as the tempo speeds up and chorus of voices lead to the unmistakable voice of A R Rahman as he goes on to sing, “O ma, kaise pukaroon, kaise karz chukaoon?”, leaving me totally surprised. How did the hero who was pining for his lover suddenly start yearning for his mother? This is the question only the movie can answer.

Also read: 99 Songs: music review by Sankhayan Ghosh.

Last week of June:

There are 14 songs in the album in as many genres (talk about variety!). There is a mandatory angst-ridden Arijit Singh track (‘Jwalamukhi’) but unlike Rockstar, this track has minimum percussion, instead putting the spotlight completely on Arijit’s voice and rightfully so. Poorvi Koutish’s version of ‘Jwalamukhi’ has an Indipop feel to it. And then there is the lovely Alka Yagnik track ‘Gori Godh Bhari’; apart from her wonderful rendition, this semiclassical piece has stand-out shehnai and sarod interludes which compete for independent attention even on repeat listening.

First week of July:

I am warming up to all the slow and melodious numbers in this album, each gently pushing me on a different journey. ‘Teri Nazar’, a sublime love ballad, again begins with piano notes (does Rahman have a new favourite instrument?). Though the lyrics have angst-ridden words like qayamat, veerana and fitoor, the flute (sounding like ripples on water) and Shashwat’s voice have a soothing effect, like balm on a tired soul. The track ends as gently as it begins, but the emotion of longing it evokes persists and fills my heart. To fight the blues I turn to ‘Sofia’, a slightly more upbeat number by the same singer, but this time the emotion is that of enigma and wonder as he sings “Phoolon sa tera naam” ever so gently; the track picks up pace and by the time the chorus is singing the “Sofia” refrain with Rahman’s voice crooning in the background, my heart has melted into a puddle.

Also read: Baradwaj Rangan reviews the 99 Songs album.

Second week of July:

COVID is wreaking havoc all around but Bela Shinde’s soothing voice in ‘O Mera Chaand’ is lulling me to sleep. This track is so serene that when she sings the lines “zara bhi tu darna nahi, tu roshni banke layega savere naye“, I feel like a child comforted by mother earth. During the day, her voice takes me on a spiritual high with ‘Sai Shirdi Sai’, even though I am not a devotee. What is it with the transcendental nature of Rahman’s devotional numbers that makes one forget religion and the deity yet takes us on spiritual journeys that words fail to capture?

Third week of July:

I am slowly shifting my attention to the faster numbers like ‘Nayi Nayi Nayi’, which takes me back on a nostalgic trip to my college days. Almost every Rahman album has one eccentric genre-defying song that is his signature, but this album has many clever surprises that make one sit up and take notice. There is ‘Veere Kadh De’, a truly unique-sounding rap number with bhangra interludes. Then, ‘The Voice Without Words’ sounds like a paradoxical name for the track that has Koutish reciting English verses, until its music breaks into those places within you that only silence can reach.

But the sweetest of surprises comes in the form of ‘Soja Soja’; a track that morphs from melody to jazz in the first minute, as Shashaa’s voice swings between saccharine sweetness and sensuous seduction effortlessly. By the time this track ends with her playful “Diskyaaaooon”, my sleep is gone and feet are tapping away.

Final week of July:

After listening for a month I find myself warming up to one particular track. ‘Humnava’, in the initial listens, is like walking into an unknown terrain blindfolded; Armaan Malik’s voice flows gently like a river whose path is mysterious with just piano and Shashaa Tirupati’s humming for company. The twists and turns in the pitch and scale are confusing but when they get familiar, the blinds unfold to reveal a stunning beauty; a bit of blue here, a tinge of red there, added to a dash of purple and some pristine white and before you know the masterful artist has captured something exquisite on the canvas; but this canvas is musical with feelings being painted like hues. Isn’t this what love is? A canvas of myriad feelings coming together as one beautiful emotion? And all it takes for the maestro to paint this wonderfully vivid soundscape is 3.5 minutes! It gets even more beautiful on repeat listens and needless to say, this track now plays on loop…

Rest of the year:

I find myself returning to this wonderful album to fight the lockdown blues. ‘Teri Nazar’ is introspective while ‘The Oracle’ takes me to a high; ‘Soja Soja’ is a great energiser while ‘Humnava’ is pure bliss. This album is my one-way ticket to inner joy and peace. As the nightmarish year ends and a new (hopefully good) one begins, 99 Songs is a gift that keeps on giving.

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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