Director: Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy
Cast: Ehan Bhat, Edilsy Vargas, Lisa Ray, Manisha Koirala
99 Songs has been directed by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, but the speciality is that the story and music are by AR Rahman. We're introduced to Jay (Ehan Bhat) and Sofia (Edilsy Vargas). Jay is a struggling musician and Sofia is a super-rich woman with a super-rich dad (Ranjit Barot). We think this is going to be the kind of film where the dad tells Jay, 'No! You can't marry my daughter,' but this is not that kind of a film. In fact, her dad supports her and asks her to take care of a new business.
But Jay wants to be a musician, a creator. That's why we get more scenes of Jay with his music than with Sofia. Sofia's father is reluctant to let his daughter marry a struggling musician. I imagine that it's something AR Rahman drew from his own life; he was a struggling musician at first, too. And then, he challenges Jay to become famous. He might need to create just one song for that—or even a hundred.
Jay goes to Shillong with his pal and tries to make it big. As long as the film stays with Jay it's watchable. One of the major reasons is AR Rahman's music. The songs fit with the grand situations we are shown on screen. But they aren't isolated songs, it's more like a thematic rock music album.
The largeness of the music is matched by the production. I was reminded of films like Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart which takes place entirely in an artificial set, The Cotton Club, and another film from the same period, Adrian Lyne's Flashdance. These films aren't exactly comparable to 99 Songs, but they were movie musicals that used a music video style to tell a story. Artifice is a big part of these films, they aren't "realistic". For instance, we don't even care that Jay isn't picking up Sofia's calls because we understand that he's immersed in his music.
The second half of the film, though, is all over the place because of a "realism" that sets in terms of plot. There are subplots about drugs, Jay's parents and an episode at a rehab center. There's also a subplot around a pen drive: it's a kind of a magical situation that creators imagine might happen, but typically doesn't in real life. But maybe, this is AR Rahman's way of asking us to keep hoping for the best.
I would have liked a shorter film. With the music video format, it feels a bit long. The emotions come to us through songs and the setting—not from the characters. But the movie is an easy watch. I think it's actually a peek into AR Rahman's mind: what he thinks about music and its power to heal the world, to consume a person in a way they can't really explain. It's like jumping into the middle of the ocean—which actually happens in the film.
Walking away from 99 Songs, I felt I had watched an experimental film, a deep dive into the mind of a great creator. It didn't bother me that, taken as another feature film, I might have treated it differently.