99 Songs movie review: AR Rahman film thoughtfully embraces the theatrical musical genre

Ehan Bhat's impassioned performance in 99 Songs complements AR Rahman and the director's vision

Udita Jhunjhunwala April 16, 2021 10:00:10 IST

3/5

A story and production by composer AR Rahman will, characteristically, be a musical. The narrative of this romantic drama is fused together with not 99 but 14 songs. The story of a struggling musician with a tragic backstory determined to overcome a challenge in order to be worthy of the approval of his lover’s wealthy father is as old as the hills.

Rahman’s story and Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy’s screenplay (the latter also directs) follows the tropes of the genre suffusing a tested narrative with visual spectacle, drama and heartfelt performances by lead actors Ehan Bhat who plays composer-singer Jay and Edilsy Vargas as the mute Sophia.

Jay believes one song can change the world but the unspeaking Sophia’s businessman father disagrees. Sophia is a mute spectator to her life as her father Mr Singhania (Ranjit Barot) sets Jay a seemingly insurmountable task – compose 100 songs before I let you marry my daughter. Singhania’s attitude is commonplace – artistic pursuits are often regarded as inferior and indulgent.

99 Songs movie review AR Rahman film thoughtfully embraces the theatrical musical genre

Still from 99 Songs. Image from Twitter

Haunted by his own father’s disregard and dislike of musical pursuits, accompanied by his college friend (Tenzin Dalha), the conflicted Jay embarks on a journey that takes him into musically charged Shillong. A pianist and singer, Jay is no purist. He uses technology to compose and learns from all those around.

As Sophia suffers silently, Jay’s world opens up to new musical influences, colourful characters and a glittering jazz scene. Each scenario is boosted by Rahman’s score and songs. There’s a beautiful musical piece where Jay is talking about his journey into music through the sounds and rhythms of India.

Look past the occasionally overworked lyrics and 99 Songs takes you by surprise. Ehan Bhat’s impassioned performance, as the lost soul seeking solace in his music, complements Rahman and Krishnamoorthy’s vision. On the flipside, in her own life story, Sophia is a woman without agency. She’s the delicate girl who finds expression in her art, but she’s also the victim who can’t fight back.

Rahul Ram, Lisa Ray and Manisha Koirala play characters who nudge along Jay’s story. Krishnamoorthy’s sweeping and fantastical visualisation is supported by the cinematography (Tanay Satam and James Cowley) and production design (Aparna Raina) and Rahman’s songs are sung by Sashwat Singh as Jay’s singing voice.

This is Rahman unfettered by studios and someone else’s vision. It’s a collaborative creation that thoughtfully embraces the theatrical musical genre.

99 Songs released in cinemas today in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

Rating: ***

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