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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Go Goa Gone

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I like a good caper, I like zombie movies and I don’t mind copious swearing. So Go Goa Gone should have been tailor made for me. Sadly, after a promising start – featuring Chiru in Golimar! I cheered! – the film fell away into rote dialogues and predictable predicaments.  Raj and DK had a great idea but the execution didn’t quite do it for me.

Luv (Vir Das) and Hardik (Kunal Khemu) are dope smoking slackers, nominally employed but really living off their good friend Bunny (Anand Tiwari). Luv breaks up with his girlfriend Priyanka and Hardik decides that all he needs is another woman to cure his woes. So off to Goa they head, freeloading on Bunny’s business trip. Luv meets Luna (Pooja Gupta) who invites him to a rave on a deserted island. Following much recreational drug use, the boys wake up the next day to discover the party goers have become zombies with a taste for blood. The boys rescue Luna, run into Boris (Saif Ali Khan) the mafia dude who ran the party and they all hustle to get to safety.

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The first section of the film sets up the characters of Luv, Hardik and Bunny. Although different personalities on the surface, they’re all whiny boys who don’t take responsibility for much and have little clue. Luv is the more appealing as he seems to have a faint notion of how to be decent and Vir Das generally nails the right balance of silly and serious. Hardik (imagine the puns) is more self-centred and less inclined to bestir himself to make an effort. Kunal Khemu plays most scenes just for laughs, sometimes to great effect. Bunny is the good boy who wouldn’t mind being bad but lacks opportunity. The dialogue is mostly one liners, some hilarious some not, and insults. If you find calling someone ‘fucker’ over and over really funny, this is your movie.

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Pooja Gupta is very good as the smart and sensible Luna. She deals with the undead and the unceasingly horny with the same air of faint dismay, and generally runs away from trouble not at it so I approved of her. She is a very pretty girl but despite spending most of the film in micro shorts and a strappy top, she isn’t just eye candy. I loved her scenes with the boys as they each thought they were sharing a moment with her and she shut them down ruthlessly.

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Boris is a caricature. In fact, I think Saif took his character references from Bob Christo. With a bad wig, fake tatts, a dodgy accent that he maintains even after admitting he isn’t Russian, he is a charismatic presence without being in the least bit real.

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I think Boris is also indicative of the confusion within this film about whether it is a comedy or a horror or both. The gore is very gory so that was a bit darker than needed with the comedy and the horror element isn’t scary enough. The zombiefication occurred after the rave goers took a specific $5000 pill which fried their brains, but then was transmitted by bite. So there’s no logic in the threat, and it’s a really bad business model if you kill your clients after one dose. They were just shuffling zombies of varying acting ability. But there are some moments of the quirky genius I expected from the team that delivered 99 and Shor in the City. Hardik lures a zombie girl away in a brilliant filmi song inspired romp around trees and through the woods, his facial expressions totally at odds with the music and body language. They take a boat called the Tatinic to the island, the Russians subtitles are in a specific font. There are lots of details to enjoy.

There is an overt anti-smoking and anti-drug message that is about as subtle as a zombie bite. One of the warnings struck me more as an effort to placate Goan authorities for yet again portraying Goa as a place overrun with crime and drug addled ‘zombies’ than anything else. A further warning at the end was heavy handed and careless. I felt the second half just lost momentum as it needed to ramp up.

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It’s a very stylish film (except for a few zombie ravers who looked a bit like accountants), and the Sachin-Jigar soundtrack works well with the sharply edited visuals. Some subtitles are out of synch with the dialogue, which surprised me in a project that otherwise had good production values.

I laughed at some lines, but didn’t find this terribly funny especially in the second half. It’s a kind of Delhi Belly of the Living Dead, and neither as fun or frightening as it could have been. Worth a look, but not the zom-com I hoped for.