“It’s a crime comedy, it’s a thriller,” equivocated Raj Nidimoru, the co-director of 99, refusing to reveal the plot of his first Bollywood movie on a phone conversation a few weeks ago. But what 99 is first is an entertainer, with the plot a loose device to string together a host of funny moments and clever dialogue.
Sachin (Kunal Khemu) and Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha) are a couple of Mumbai hustlers who find themselves indebted to a gangster AGM ( a very funny Mahesh Manjrekar) after they crash his car. He puts them to work collecting the gambling debts of Rahul Vidyarthi ( Boman Irani) in Delhi after the latter absconds with 20 lakhs of AGM’s money.
That’s pretty much it for the story; the rest is an exploration of the unique cultures of small-time villainy in Mumbai and the pervasive dishonesty of Delhi. Match fixing in cricket is examined, as is the gambling subculture that ripples under every metropolis.
The Laurel and Hardy duo of Sachin and Zaramud bumble and stumble their way through the simple job, clearly at a loss as to what is expected of them but with great bonhomie and good humor, even while they are cracking heads or getting beaten up. Along the way they meet a host of engaging characters who manage to be instantly recognizable without being reduced to stereotypical caricatures.
99 is not a perfect movie. Despite having a thrumming background score that suggests a brisk pace, there are many dead zones. A whole subplot about Rahul’s marital problems could have been excised without making one iota of difference to the overall movie. (I can see why the directors succumbed to the temptation of leaving the scenes in. Boman Irani is just so good in every scene he appears in.) Making the movie shorter by about 30 minutes would have dramatically improved its pacing.
But to the viewer who is patient, the movie offers crackling dialogue, great acting and many screwball comedic moments that make you laugh out loud in a way few Bollywood movies these days do. The cast is just terrific. Kunal Khemu’s unconventional looks don’t detract from the fact that he has impeccable comedic timing and Cyrus is a great foil. Boman Irani steals every scene he is in and Mahesh Manjrekar disappears into his role as the gangster with an ego as big as his paunch. Only Soha Ali Khan as Sachin’s love interest disappoints; she looks washed out and tired, with the Pataudi nose in sharp relief. She doesn’t have good lines and she is unable to bring the effervescence required to stand out in the company of some very fine actors.
Why name it 99? For one, the movie begins in the year 1999, which allows for some technological snafus that move the plot along that would not have been possible today. But the movie’s name refers to the disappointment of getting out at 99 runs, as Sachin and Zaramud keep falling just a little short of hitting that century and making their humble dreams come true.
99 is a treat for the discerning viewer even if there are moments when you wish the movie would hurry along and get to the point. Like Flavors, the directing duo’s first full length feature, this is a sly, smart and witty movie that does not insult the viewer’s intelligence. If you’ve missed its big screen release in the US, be sure to catch it on DVD.