99 (2009)

99-Poster I generally enjoy heist or caper type films, and 99 is a fairly good example of the things I like most about the genre. Raj and DK have a keen eye for the little moments of absurdity and joy that pepper our lives, and the characters in 99 have hopes and schemes that are real world sized. Their ambitions fit within their neighbourhood – a really good coffee shop, a fresh start, a comfortable life with no running from the cops. Empathising with their flaws and stupid choices comes a little more easily when the dreams are so relatable. 99-the plan Sachin (Kunal Khemu) and Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha) are small time crims, working a technology angle rather than being standover merchants. They see themselves as perpetrating a victimless crime in a situation where nobody really gets hurt and lots of people benefit. Things go awry, as they often do, and while running from the police they steal and crash a Merc belonging to AGM (Mahesh Manjrekar).

AGM is an old school boss, the kind of bookie that newspapers here would have called a colourful racing identity. Rahul (Boman Irani) is separated from his wife, probably because of his gambling addiction. He keeps bargaining with God to win another hand, win another bet, and thinks he can beat the house. He places a bet on the cricket while having his own away game on conference in Mumbai, and is referred to AGM as his bookie. He goes home to Delhi, skipping out on the debt.

AGM sends Sachin and Zaramud to Delhi to recover the losses from Rahul, part of their agreement to work off their debt. Another character says they looked like Laurel and Hardy, and they do have about the same degree of acuity. Sachin uses AGM’s credit card to put himself up at a fancy hotel and meets duty manager Pooja (Soha Ali Khan). In between waiting around and menacing Rahul, he romances Pooja and generally looks on the bright side.

Rahul wants to win one more big bet to settle all his debts and maybe even get his wife back. The boys won’t wait, and they steal the money he is ‘borrowing’ from a client to settle the outstanding. But in a classic Delhi taxi scam their bags, including The Bag, are stolen. Rahul and Laurel and Hardy team up to win back the cash in another bet on the cricket finals, targeting high-roller JC (Vinod Khanna) as the key to success. The game is afoot! The cricket theme permeates all aspects of the characters’ lives. They’re all stuck on 99, waiting for the opportunity to make their century and claim success. None of them wants world domination or is chasing the money just for the sake of it, except maybe Rahul, they just want to get ahead. The match fixing scandal of 1999-2000 is well known so that adds another dimension as honest crooks rely on a match controlled by bigger crooks.

Kunal Khemu has a boyish charm that works well for Sachin, who isn’t the brightest crayon in the box. He and Cyrus Broacha have an easy chemistry that makes their scenes seem fresh even though the plot direction may be predictable. I could be underestimating Sachin as the subtitle team were a law unto themselves and even I know enough Hindi to know some dialogue was a bit mystifying. The boys make it up as they go and I enjoyed their antics as they tried to stay one step ahead of all their pursuers.

Boman Irani is quite restrained in terms of comedy excesses, but doesn’t shy away from showing Rahul as a jerk who will lie and wheedle his way out of trouble. He’s kind of seedy but respectable at the same time, an average man with a secret addiction. He is plausible and can be charming but there is a glint in his eye whenever he sees a chance. Rahul never learned any lasting lesson, but continued to coast on his luck and maybe God coming through on a bet or two.

Soha Ali Khan is adequate but for a film that works hard to build a little world, Pooja’s character is a bit lacking. I would have liked to see more of Pooja’s own decision making articulated. Initially she only agreed to help because Sachin whined at her, and while she did strike her own deal I didn’t really get why she would even consider getting involved to begin with. Simone Singh plays Jahnavi, Rahul’s wife. Like Pooja, although she is set up as a smart and down to earth woman there is little sense of anything about her other than her tension with Rahul. I didn’t have so many quibbles the first time I watched the film, but on a repeat viewing I felt that they existed to provide a foil for the relevant male character and not much else.

Vinod Khanna is perfectly cast as the smooth, slightly larger than life, JC. He is understated but faintly menacing under all the expensive charm. Amit Mistry and Pitobash round out the supporting cast with an entertaining blend of comedy, histrionics and sharp eyed opportunism. The soundtrack by Ashu is more bland than not, and quite formulaic – the whimsical acoustic song, the bhangra number, the sights of Delhi song, you know the drill. But they are integrated into the drama well and don’t derail the story at all. The song montages were often quite entertaining and let Raj and DK get a lot of slapstick out of their systems without dragging the main narrative down.

I hate to sound all hipster about Raj and DK but I do prefer their earlier stuff (I wasn’t blown away by Go Goa Gone) and 99 is lots of fun. While I am slightly disappointed with the female characters I genuinely like the good natured feel, the slightly dodgy characters, and the great use of locations. Even the opening titles incorporate the cast in the locations and foreshadow the twists and turns with some quirky angles and animation. The jokes take a swipe at everything from intercity rivalries to the film industry, and there are some zingy one liners courtesy of writers Raj and DK with Sita Menon. Of recent films in a similar genre I slightly prefer Ko Antey Koti and Delhi Belly, but I really have no complaints about spending a couple of hours in 1999 with these dudes. See it for a good modern robbers and more robbers caper with an appealing cast and a sense of humour about itself. 3 ½ stars!

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Shor In The City

Shor in the City didn’t get a cinematic release in Melbourne, which was very disappointing to those of us who had been following updates on twitter. Good reviews, an interesting cast line up and compelling trailer meant that I got the DVD as soon as it was released, and watched it almost straight away. It’s a film that would look great on the big screen, with some beautiful shots of Mumbai and the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, but the storyline and excellent performances make it a very worthwhile DVD watch as well.

The film takes place over  Ganesh Chaturthi  and follows three stories which are not interlinked, although there is one character who is involved in all three. Interestingly the opening credits state that all the events in the film are inspired from newspaper articles, which at times made me wonder exactly what does get reported in Mumbai. It’s a slice of life in the city and seems to be a very realistic serving.

The first story centre around Tilak (Tusshar Kapoor) and his two friends Ramesh (Nikhil Dwivedi) and Mandook (Pitobash). While Tilak runs a business illegally copying and publishing books to sell at traffic intersections, his two friends seem to be mainly engaged in petty theft and other small crime. Tilak is also recently married and the relationship with his new wife Sapna is one of the standouts of the film. Their initial awkwardness around each other and the slow development of their relationship is very well portrayed. I would have to say that this is probably the best performance by Tusshar Kapoor that I have seen – I can’t remember much about him in other films, but he really impressed me here. Radhika Apte is excellent as Sapna and the chemistry between the two is develops realistically as their relationship evolves. This is the second time I’ve seen Radhika Apte (she was in Onir’s excellent I Am) and she shows her versatility here with a completely different but equally compelling performance.

The film follows the lives of the three friends as they kidnap a writer to steal his latest manuscript, try to get rid of some guns and a bomb that they have stolen and finally get involved in a bank robbery. Nikhil Dwivedi is totally crazy as Mandook and while he portrays the type of person that you would hope never to meet in real life, on-screen he is funny and infuriating in equal measures. Ramesh is somewhat overshadowed by the force that is Mandook, but the relationship between the three feels very natural and true to life. Whether it is riding around on a motorbike taking surreptitious pictures of girls or hanging out in a bar taking pictures of themselves writer/ directors Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D K and writer Sita Menon really seem to have got these three right.

The second story revolves around Abhay, an NRI from the USA who has come to Mumbai to set up a small business. His shock and incredulousness at the number and extent of the bribes he has to pay is understandable, but things take a much darker turn when a couple of extortionists – Premal (Zakir Hussain) and his boss Hemraj (Suresh Dubey) – turn up demanding he pay protection money. They threaten him and his new model girlfriend Sharmili (Preeti Desai) and his helplessness is compounded when he cannot get the answers he wants from the police. Sendhil Ramamurthy looks out of place enough to be perfect for this role. He is an American actor who has appeared in a number of TV shows, but I hadn’t ever seen him before so he fitted the part well for me. His attempts at Hindi before lapsing back into frustrated English are just brilliant and remind me so much of my attempts to communicate in India! The last part of his story is a little less believable but it’s still an engrossing watch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I liked the contrasts in Abhay’s story. Firstly the contrast  between his work life; trying to set up a business, dealing with IT issues, dealing with his employees and the extortionists and then his more Western style life clubbing and shopping with his girlfriend. Again the story is very realistic and there is a moment where Sharmili spots a poster of herself and her reaction of – look there’s me! – is spot on. Then the contrasts between the noise of Ganesh Visarjan and the quiet of Abhay’s apartment, and of his initial excitement at being in Mumbai gradually changing as the realities of his situation kick in. But what really impressed me here was a scene where Abhay’s employee speaks to his wife on the phone about eating dinner with his boss just before Hemraj walks in. The detail about his phone conversation makes his employee a very real person and the distain with which he is subsequently treated serves to accentuate the viciousness of the extortionists. This attention to small details occurs throughout the film and I think this is why it feels true to life and works on a number of different levels.

The final story involves Sawan, a talented cricketer who is trying out for the under 22 team. He quickly realises that skill and talent are only going to get him so far, and that to get into the team he will need to bribe the selector. But he doesn’t have the kind of money it takes, and to add to his troubles his girlfriend Sejal (Girija Oak) is being pressured into a marriage by her family and is constantly asking for his help. The scenes between Sawan and Sejal again feel very realistic and their situation a common one. Judging by the number of couples in this scene at any rate!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was very keen to see Sundeep Kishan here since he was excellent in his Telugu debut Prasthanam, and I wasn’t disappointed.   Sundeep is totally believable as Sawan and perfectly fits the role of the aspiring cricketer who knows enough about life to understand the selection bribery, but still wants to believe that the game is above such taints. At one point he says to his friend, ‘Have I been speaking in Telugu?’ which my subtitles rather strangely translate as, ‘What have I been saying all this time?’, but it did make me smile.  I liked the way he practices his game on the roof using a mirror and the natural rapport he has with his sister when she asks him to look after his nephew. His solution to his money crisis is rather drastic, but his attempts to deal with Sejal are the responses I can imagine any young man in his situation making and it’s all very believable.

Sawan’s friend Tipu is the one character who appears in all three threads of the film. He’s a ‘fixer’ who is responsible for organising crowds for demonstrations and riots, buying and selling of various commodities and many other illegal activities. Amit Mistry plays the role with plenty of humour and has a diverse collection of shirts.

The cinematography is excellent and Mumbai itself becomes another character in the film. We see a number of different sides to the city with shots from above and across the water as well as the loud and exuberant street scenes of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. The festival acts as an underlying beat and the crowds and noise press heavier and heavier as the film progresses.

The music is also excellent and fits well into the narrative. The opening number is suitably loud and brash, and Saibo is a beautifully sweet.  There are no big song and dance scenes which really weren’t necessary here and in fact would have totally derailed the story. The lack of an item number in the night club scene is very appreciatively noted!

The film is a great look at a slice of Mumbai life and the writers are to be congratulated on taking a number of stories and making them all work together so well. Each of the actors seems to fit their character and it’s one of those films where I keep noticing more and more clever detail on repeated viewing. The end is less successful in some respects although the final resolutions over the end credits are brilliant. Watch for some great performances, clever story writing and to find out why karma really is a bitch. 4 ½ stars.

Temple says:

Shor In The City isn’t totally successful in my book, but it is a lot to ask that all the stories succeed equally- and they don’t. Most of the let down is in Sendhil Ramamurthy’s storyline. It’s just too pat. He is the perfect NRI having the perfectly frustrating and confronting return to India, meets the perfect model girlfriend on arrival, lives in the perfect apartment with the perfect luxe lifestyle, suffers the perfect stereotypical rip-off and commits the perfect crime in payback. For me, it lacks the subtlety and emotional hook of the other characters’ stories, and I just didn’t buy it completely. I have to confess, I think he is very decorative but a pretty ordinary actor. I sat through the truly awful “It’s A Wonderful Afterlife” which is a very unfunny ‘comedy’ in which Sendhil played one of the leads so I was predisposed to feeling a tad jaundiced. But I think his character and performance also suffer in the comparison to the other two guys. Sundeep Kishan is perfect casting as Sawan with his mix of confidence and self doubt that made him choose unwisely at times. Sundeep seems very natural and his timing and rapport with the other actors feels really spontaneous. I was amazed by Tusshar Kapoor who was sweet and awkward and fun as Tilak. I’d never rated him much as an actor but this was a really moving performance in a role that has great range but also needs a lot of restraint. His scenes with his brand new wife were beautifully judged, and his excitement about books and reading (baffling to his sidekicks) was totally endearing. I liked the way Sawan and Tilak provided a nice contrast and tension with the good boy maybe going bad, and the bad boy who decides to change directions.

It’s a very pleasing film on a visual level and does convey the manic bustle and also the quiet reflective corners of Mumbai. The use of locations was great and it added a buzz to the scenes out in the streets, as well as the intimate domesticity up on rooftops and balconies as characters looked out on the sprawling city. Ganesh imagery is everywhere, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tilak is able to move on after catching the benign gaze of the god who removes obstacles. It’s a fast paced film that looks and sounds great. The writing is good, and the story is rarely dull. There is a little too much coincidence and some heavy handed visuals but overall I like it a lot.  3/12 stars.