Cast: Bhavana, Ganesh
96, the Tamil romantic drama, starring Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha, hit the screens in the first week of October, 2018. And within seven months, its Kannada remake, featuring Ganesh and Bhavana, has occupied the theatres in Karnataka and other areas. This isn't a record to boast about since the story remains the same and the screenplay, for which director Preetham Gubbi takes credit, is a copy-paste from the original. The dialogues, too, feels translated from Tamil to Kannada.
Remakes are a hard nut to crack, for there are expectations to match and a general itch to inch ahead of the original. When Mungaru Male, the blockbuster Kannada film that put Ganesh on the map of stars, was remade in other languages, a similar pall of gloom had enveloped the minds of enraged movie buffs. Its Telugu remake, Vaana, had the same elements, yet nobody wanted to watch it. Now, history has repeated itself, but, this time, Ganesh is at the receiving end.
99, with a few categorical changes, starting with the title and the protagonists' costumes, feels like an emotionless remake even though Ramachandra Thirthahalli (Ganesh) and Janaki Nagaraj (Bhavana) call it a night amidst tears of sorrow.
Two high school students—played by Hemanth (young Ramachandra) and Samikshaa (young Janaki)—in Thirthahalli navigate through the corridors of first love and feelings of jubilation and despair as they begin to unwrap the gifts presented by adolescence. Here, Janaki is a singer, named after the "Naguva Nayana" crooner S. Janaki, and Hemanth is a shy boy who doesn't quite know how to put his thoughts into words.
When they drift apart due to reasons that are beyond their control and come face-to-face twenty years later, in Bengaluru, the different truths that had led them down unhappy paths crumble. Theirs was a relationship that didn't involve cuddling, or even the simple act of expressing their affection for each other. It doesn't mean that the connection they had was flimsy. In fact, it goes on to prove that there are people in this world who are okay with not moving on (a rare quality indeed).
But what 99 doesn't get is the silent score that drives such narratives. By score, I'm not pointing at the background score; it's rather the mood that I'm underlining. The scenes where Ram jumps into panic mode the minute Janaki gets close don't dance to the tunes of humor. They become a farce as if Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) has possessed him.
All the gestures, including dialogue-delivery, are inspired by 96, so these actors don't own their characters–Samikshaa is an exception; her feistiness when she shoos away her college mate, in one of the scenes set in a women's college, thinking that a Roadside Romeo has sent her a message stands as the highlight for me.
This is a film that's supposed to be entirely built on music and melancholy. There's a bit of the latter here and there; however, there's nothing fantastical about Arjun Janya's music. None of lyricist Kaviraj's lines enters the boundaries set by Uma Devi's mesmerizing metaphor, "Thaabangale Roobangalaai, Padudhe, Thodudhe (Yearnings Take Shape And Touch Me)," or the genius of these precious words, "Iravingu Theevaai, Namai Chooluthae; Vidiyalum Irulaai Varuthe (The Night, Like An Island, Is Circling Us; Even The Break Of Dawn Seems Like Darkness).
Maybe if 99 were an original film, Arjun's lackluster tunes could have earned an above-average tag, but when there's a bar to reach, this can't be the output. And, for an actor who gained popularity by playing various versions of Devdas (in portions of Gaalipata and Mugulu Nage, too), this could have been child's play if Gubbi had allowed Ganesh to channelize his own energy instead of making him ape Vijay Sethupathi. Even after a decade, the climax of Mungaru Male leaves a lump in my throat and a hole in my heart, but 99's ending didn't move me. I sat there analyzing the leads' vacant goodbyes, and not for a moment did I raise my hand to wipe my absent tears.