Subhash K Jha: 99 is an original piece of work.

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After two months of aridity at the theatres one is happy to straightaway take the plunge into the never-ending wonders of la-la land, also known as the silver screen.

99 is not quite the big bad blockbuster you’d have liked to see after such a longish period of deprivation.

Where you’d want a big burp-inducing pickled and pappadomed thali, 99 serves up a tangy aperitif that you can nibble with pleasure but not quite sink your teeth into. This is a sorted-out sly swipe at the cinema of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone where violence is satirized into a quirky comic capricious crime caper colonized by characters who are losers by instinct, nonetheless endearing in their defeatism.

99 takes some time to settle down in its groove. The first half an hour is a zonked-out mess with the co-directors indulging in a smirky we-know-it-all game of camera cockiness which leaves us exasperated.

The characters, like the whacked-out crime-dud Mahesh Manjrekar and the the two petty criminals Kunal Khemu and Cyrus Brocha (the latter playing it down, playing it cool, playing the quiet deceptive fool who plays it by none of the rules) begin to make sense once they move to Delhi where Khemu-Brocha are sent to collect money from a perennial fiscal misadventurer played by the ever-dependable Boman Irani with an urbane anxiety that teeters on neurosis.

Boman’s performance, in fact overrules all the film’s flaws of which there are many.

Boman’s part as an incorrigible gambler and a walking-talking financial disaster zone is so well etched and enacted you wonder if the film is just a pretext for this hugely talented master of nuances.

That the film is assembled with a level of professionalism and a certain amount cleverness only helps.

Amit Mistry (have we seen him before?) as a wimpish loutish money collector, also on the trail of poor Boman, is again, a performer who imbues the goings-on with a sassy splendour that the material doesn’t quite justify.

But then at least 99 with its swaggering commentary on match-fixing and middle class over-reaching is an original piece of work, if not a classifiable work of art.

There is enough evidence here to suggest that the people behind the endeavour know what they are doing. They go about the business of creating a universe of crime and comedy without either glorifying or ridiculing the characters.

We are the way we are, and what could be done about it? That’s the underlining text of this tangy flavourful often funny but not fully developed plot.

As a famine-breaker it serves its purpose. We are made conscious of how far Indian cinema has come from the time when crime never paid.

But what was Vinod Khanna, playing a wealthy better with a penchant for giving away the plot, doing here at a time when he was needed in his constituency?

Rating: **

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