What a movie! Loved it. Funny, crisp, quick, careful, and just the right amount of slick. Cyrus Broacha and Kunal Khemu are perfect as the small-time cons Zaramud and Sachin who navigate a series of unfortunate events at the brink of the new millennium.
The red car is foreshadowing! Not sure about the paperweight.
They get further and further entangled with a Mumbai bookie AGM (Mahesh Manjrekar),
his Delhi underling Kuber (Amit Mistry), a gambler who's in deep with both of them (Rahul, played by Boman Irani),
his wife Jhavani (Simone Singh),
fellow gambler and cricket fan JC (Vinod Khanna),
and hotel staff Pooja (Soha Ali Khan).
I read a review of this film that talked about how unlike Oye Lucky Lucky Oye this film is, but to me they are quite similar, and that's a huge compliment since OLLO was my favorite film of 2008. The surface similarities of thieves and other sorts of financial cads running around Delhi probably mean a lot more if you are fluent with 20something culture in Delhi (which I am not) - there are jokes about guys in red cars blaring bhangra remixes and samey-samey girls being named only Pooja or Neha, and Mumbai boys Sachin and Zaramud are frustrated at how the city's way of doing things makes their lives more complicated. For me, the more important likeness is the overall tone and treatment - and oh baby, the thought put into it all! The people in 99 are so interesting. Even though many of them would never top my list of people I'd want to hang out with in real life, they make for great characters. The film itself treats them gently, supporting them with details in plot, set, and location and complexity in characterization. The interrelationships among the characters are really nice too. Even Kuber and his gigantic goon have a nice rapport.
Sachin and Zaramud provide an endearing center for the story: as business partners and friends, they go through many tests but emerge even stronger. They squabble, but there's never any doubt they will stick together.
I found Sachin's relationship with Pooja even more interesting; although they had a lot of values and drive in common and bonded through a period of risk and reward, I don't think they ended up simply involved romantically, which would've been the easiest ending for them. Their final scene has a little more to it than that, and it seemed like a truly equitable ending in which both of them were content.
And god, let's put Boman Irani and Vinod Khanna opposite each other in everything! They're so good together! It's easy to forget how amazing Boman Irani can be when he is not hemmed in by craptastic gags and dumb caricatures. These two each have have their own kind of cool, and the combination of their similar arcs (humiliating losses; a big score on the horizon)
set in varying contrast and cooperation was so effective. I don't know what power Vinod's masala-era smolder would still carry (or if he's interested in parlaying it), but I didn't miss it at all. His forceful reserve that I've seen in films like Mere Apne and Rihaee was really great here, especially coupled with lots of mischievous glints. Boman too gave some power to Rahul, who was always the underdog but never acted completely desperate - he never acts as pathetic (or ill, even - to me he clearly read as an addict) as he really is. These two characters think they know how to work the system and are occasionally correct; the two actors definitely do and succeed brilliantly.
I also loved the shape of the story, how it built and got more and more complicated before the ends and components sifted back out, though not with perfect smoothness. It somehow has the perfect amount of obstacles, twists, and characters. It's never too much but it's always interesting and entertaining. I wish I could comment on the dialogue aspect of the writing. The actors' delivery was a treat, whether growling threats, puzzling through a new-fangled mobile phone, or simply remarking at ridiculous Delhi weather. Certainly the parts I could understand fit the tone of what was going on. Unfortunately, the subtitles have once again let down the film. For example, I loved this smart-ass line from Sachin as Zaramud careens around in a stolen car so much that I described it to a Hindi-speaking friend.
He said "That's not in there." "Really?" I said, beginning to get disappointed (because who does not want a reference to Qurbani, especially during Khanna-o-Rama?!?), and added further detail to describe where it appears. "Nope," he said. "Definitely not." So. The subtitles are not only incorrect but they're actually adding references to Hindi films to the text used by the viewers who don't understand Hindi. Great. That's a whole new variety of WTFery.
Looking through the pictures of the film, I found several images that seemed to capture all this complexity really well, which I think speaks highly of the film's consistency.
Run they do, and style they have. I don't think the entire point of 99 is style, but the film employs it so well that it should be noted.
The opening credits follow Sachin through the Mumbai streets, hinting at how well our leads are integrated into their own town; by contrast, Delhi is all wonderfully full and jumbled streets for them to navigate, literally and figuratively.
Ever notice how when you mention Delhi, at least one person will respond with some equivalent of "NOM!"?
The title refers, I assume, both to the the nerve-wracking point of an almost-century in cricket (the sport features prominently in the film, as does its language in many dialogues - and this one sums up well the nervous brink that so many of the characters operate on throughout the story) and to the date of most of the action of the film, and the production design team reminds you of this in many ways.
Sachin's deepest dream is not to take over AGM's operations or to rule the Mumbai underworld but to open a "coffee parlor" that has good brew and a hip social scene - how appropriately post-Friends! One complaint on the 90s front: while I was never in India in 1999 so don't have evidence of what I speak, my gut reaction is that some of the clothes in 99 are a little off. Kunal Khemu in particular looks way too 2000s-y, too metrosexual.
Soha's poofy ponytail and skinny jeans also seem wrong somehow.
It's the reverse of the common 80s and 90s Hindi film song fashion timewarp in which characters wear things several years behind the movie release date.
But if that's the film's greatest flaw, that's no problem, no problem at all.
Here's another perfect image.
Yep. That's the long and short of it, boys. And this one.
Trusting a stranger is a mistake they make repeatedly; on the other hand, they eventually realize that they'll only be able to fix their mess by trusting somebody, because they sure can't do it on their own.
Learning to work together: what a nice little Desai-like touch!
Speaking of, one of the side characters provides a great excuse for some riffs on the film world.
Kewal Pandey (Raja Kapse)
is a past-his-prime actor who has slid (it is implied) from Hindi films to Bhojpuri ones. He in turn criticizes Bollywood as losing touch with its true audience and heart - a complaint I feel like I hear all the time -
- and that Bhojpuri films are going to be the next true Indian cinema.
And of course movie stars watch over proceedings.
See this movie. See it right now. Or else.
At the time of writing, the whole film is available for online viewing at the official site, so you have no excuse not to!