As Bollywood producers talk with multiplex owners—most getting their theatre fix with cricket match reruns and dusty titles until an end to the strike is brokered— 99 ’s timing is akin to the Second Coming. Somehow the distribution fates saw fit to give the film a pass and I say they are going to be heavily rewarded because this offering is a premium one. This screwball gangster flick, set in the age of Y2K paranoia, is about a deeply indebted gambler and a host of collectors who shouldn’t quit their day jobs. The twisted tale comes together in a fun billing that defies all odds. No doubt throngs will show for this pic’s debut.
For Rahul (Boman Irani), everybody is playing poker. When someone’s lying he always catches their tell—be it a sniffle, a squint of the eyes, a lick of the lips. And while he’s watching for weakness he’s also waiting on impulsive signs on the television that could dictate whether he should bet or not. The year is 1 99 9 and the degenerate’s throwing down coin to AGM (Mahesh Manjrekar), the kind of hustler who knows no bounds when it comes time to collect. The gullible Rahul gets taken for a truckload of money and he has a short window to recoup.
Meanwhile, two half-assed hustlers are capitalizing on the cell phone rage. The slick and smooth JC (Vinod Khanna) and his overweight Chris Farley-like counterpart named Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha) run a racket where they poach peoples’ cell-phone cards and pawn them off to customers who get free reign to call anywhere, anytime. Poor sucker with the bill at the end of the month doesn’t know where all the three-hour phone calls placed to Nairobi came from. All’s riding high until they deal with a guy who wasn’t vouched for. And this guy (they call Baldie) squeals and leads the cops to their pirate operation.
The law on their tails, the two stiffs decide to go joyriding in a Mercedes that happens to belong to AGM. That’s before they total it, of course. Now they owe. AGM decides to hire them so they can pay back their debt in spades. Turns out they’re good at streamlining the crooked crime organization’s accounting books, except AGM wants them to get their fists dirty and go door-to-door to muscle deadbeats to pay the piper. The two leave the comforts of Mumbai and head to the slower-paced Delhi, where things run a little differently.
JC and his pal Zaramud are living a nice life as goons. There’s even time to enlist the attractive Pooja (Soha Ali Khan), a manager at their five-star hotel, into their schemes. On their list is Rahul, who lost big by picking India in a cricket game. But they aren’t the only morons squeezing the guy for cash. A scrawny bookie and his oaf bodyguard are also shaking him down. Nobody seems willing to get in line. And somehow the quick thinking dreamer and self-professing luck guru Rahul keeps slipping out of tight situations.
It may seem as though the characters and the premise is boilerplate: guy gets the girl, the stock snarling villains are abound and it all goes down without much of a hitch. But the work is quite a breakaway. Filmmaking duo Raj Nidimoru and Krishan D.K. managed to cast the heartthrob but partner him up with a chubby actor who isn’t wearing tight shirts or hair gel. And the gal pal in the film is good looking but not a pinup Barbie doll. And the lead is your everyday Joe Sixpack who works a 9 to 5 and is fascinated with The Matrix.
The film plays up the computer café and cell phone craze that hit India in similar fashion as it did stateside. The logline of the film attests to some of the film being based on real events. That might be true. Whether all the crooks are legit (as in they existed at one time) is no biggie. Was the game of cricket (a form of religion in India) rigged? Indeed.
Most shocking is the fact that there’s not one musical video in the entire 90 minutes (Bollywood films run theree-hours on average) until the credits roll. You expect one to happen around each cliffhanger, but no. What a most pleasant respite! It’s quite refreshing and I think will throw off the viewers who expect their Rocky Horror Picture Show inspired interludes—well, save for the credits.
What makes 99 conquer its counterparts is the fairly strict attention to the time for which it was set (the ’90s) and the subtle references. The laughing engine took a few minutes to get going but once kick started it manages to get plenty by the end. And some of the comedy bits have layers that dig deep. We’re not talking entirely about bubblegum comics here. 99 has potential to set a new standard.
Cast: Boman Irani, Mahesh Manjrekar, Soha Ali Khan, Vinod Khanna and Cyrus Broacha
Directors: Raj Nidimoru and Krishan D.K.
Screenwriters: Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K. and Sita Menon
Producers: Anupam Mittal and Aditya Shastri
Genre: Action Comedy; Hindi-language, subtitled
Running time: 130 min
Release date: May 15 ltd.