Director: Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy
Cast: Ehan Bhat, Edilsy Vargas, Lisa Ray, Manisha Koirala, Tenzin Dalha
Music: AR Rahman
When a young Jay is asked to choose a birthday present from a toy shop, he walks all the way to the back to dust off an old toy guitar no one seems to want. His father, upset at this choice, slaps him and takes him away at once. The father believes it’s music that ruined their lives and he tries to dissuade any attempts his son makes at getting close to his deep connection with music. So, he takes his son to a kite maker and tries to make it up to him by letting him buy as many as he pleases. The boy eventually gets six of them. Not five, not seven, but six because that’s how many strings make a guitar.
As he files them at the beach with the wind as his lyrics, he starts to ‘play’ these strings as though he’s finally got his guitar. And when Rahman’s BGM beautifully fuses with the boy’s kite strings, the music becomes a secret the boy shares with us. It almost feels like…synesthesia.
99 Songs, with story and music by AR Rahman, is a kaleidoscope of shimmering visuals that cannot be imagined without music. Directed by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, this harmonious battle between sight and sound becomes the film, with the romance between Jay (an earnest Ehan Bhat) and Sophie (Edilsy Vargas) receding to the background, like chorus. The poetics of 99 Songs, the brainchild of our musical genius, is almost mythical. Sophie cannot speak but she expresses herself through paintings with her artwork being reflections of her state of mind. As for Jay, there’s no separating music and life because he cannot imagine doing anything else but create music. Did we really expect a love story between two artistes to really be smooth?
But the opposition isn’t internal, at least at first. Straight out of an old Hindi movie, we get a scene where Sophie’s father rejects her decision to get married to Jay, not because he’s an old-school Amrish Puri type. In fact he’s the opposite. After Jay impresses Sophie’s father, they’re allowed to kiss each other in public, in his presence, like it’s no big deal. But he has one condition. Jay needs to find a ‘real job’ and not risk his life trying to make a living creating music. He even has a specific figure: “100 great songs for my daughter’s hand in marriage”.
This condition feels right out of an ancient folk tale, placing no agency upon Sophie. Jay doesn’t seem to contest this either because he’s ready to move to Shillong to come back with the said quantity. Sophie might not be able to speak, but apparently she doesn’t have a voice either. Caged within this predicament (we get a literal image of this too), we see her trying to break away from the trophy she has now become to the men in her life.
But 99 Songs never tries to be this epic love story. The love is again incidental, the reason why two artistes have to go their separate ways to discover themselves. For Jay, this journey is about music and finding his truth in it. For Sophie, it’s pretty much the same journey too but it’s about moving forward for her, even when it’s all about going back in time for Jay.
Jay becomes a different person in Shillong as he starts living there with his buddy Polo (Tenzin Dalha) and his huge family. His determination turns into an obsession as he tries to create one song after another. But this purity in music isn’t something you can study or achieve by hard work alone. It involves a deep understanding of oneself and an almost spiritual awakening, according to 99 Songs. And we see this in the form of dreams and hallucinations, visions and splendour. If there’s a Tamil film that can get you to see music, it is this.
Unlike in other films, the birth of this artiste isn’t an obstacle course he has to suffer through to evolve. In 99 Songs, the pain is a vital part of this self discovery, but it isn’t everything. Through his memories and flashbacks-within-flashbacks we learn, along with Jay, the reasons why music is so essential to his being.
On the surface, the writing choices seldom keep things engaging. The conflicts are old-fashioned, like a husband being jealous of his wife and the brooding artiste having no time for his lover. Resolutions are simpler still, involving shorts stints at a mental health facility and a few pep talks. But logic is not exactly what the film’s going for.
We get a splendid sequence of what ‘pure’ music can do to a couple in love and it involves what I imagine is an ‘isai puyal’. In contrast, the written elements of the drama seem juvenile. Like how a politician decides to become better after he experiences the purity in music. This constant battle between fantastical visions and plot points stuck in reality causes the most dissonance in 99 Songs. But as a purely trippy voyage into a musical mind, there’s not many films we have that can come close. AR Rahman might just have written an Imtiaz Ali film.