30 May 2009

Film Review: 99

Failure To Impress


FILM » 99

WITH DELHI’S GRADUAL transformation from boring, buttoned-up babudom to a city with space for the puppie, the plush and the jholawallah, Mumbai — the country’s erstwhile undisputed First City — has been getting a run for its money. Mumbai’s long-term hold on Hindi cinema’s urban imagery has recently got competition from a spate of movies attempting to ‘do Delhi’ — most famously Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye and Dilli 6. Swinging jauntily into this battleground of Mumbai versus Delhi comes 99, which lays cinematic claim to both cities by transposing Mumbai characters to Delhi.

In a spin on the classic caper, small-time Mumbai crooks Sachin (Kunal Khemu) and Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha) find themselves indebted to a bhai-cumbookie called AGM (a superb Mahesh Manjrekar) and must go to Delhi to extract money owed to AGM by a gambler called Rahul (a half-hearted Boman Irani). The dialogical introduction to Delhi is funny: Khemu and Broacha reeling off the many things wrong with the city: their prize-winning point being that all Delhi girls are called either Neha or Pooja.

But all the promise of these opening scenes is squandered once the boys get to Delhi. For one, most of what we see of Delhi is a five star hotel (and a dubious glittering skyline seen from the hotel’s glass-fronted elevator), Boman’s pokey little flat and even pokier bank cubicle. Both the latter are suspiciously un-Delhi-like spaces; the bank has the added problem of an indubitably Parsi name. Also, with the exception of Vinod Khanna (effortless as big-time gambler JC), there’s something indefinably off-kilter about the ‘North Indian’ characters: the possibly fraudulent taxi-driver, the Bhojpuri film star, the Bihari extortionist — none seems to entirely fill out the outlines of the roles they’ve been given. The women seem to settle into their parts even less. Soha Ali Khan as a carefully-coiffed hotel receptionist (called Pooja, of course) has not one interesting scene, and the talented Simone Singh’s phone conversations with husband Boman are excruciatingly slow.

There’s clearly been a lot of attention paid to conceptualising the moment in which the film is set — the late 1990s conjuncture of liberalisation, television, cricket and match-fixing is beautifully realised, with mobile phones featuring both as aspirational gadget and object of runaway speculation. One wishes similar attention had been paid to the characters as well.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 22, Dated Jun 06, 2009

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