I had very low expectations going in to see Bhoothnath (I feared it would be the culmination in a series of dreadful films – U, Me aur Hum, Goal and Jodhaa Akbar being among the others – that Tehelka has asked me to review in recent weeks) and the first half-hour lived down to these expectations. After a five-minute preamble that could have come out of any B-movie about teens in a spooky mansion, we meet a family of three, newly arrived in Goa. Aditya (Shah Rukh Khan in a relaxed cameo) is a cruise-ship engineer who is setting sail soon, leaving his wife Anjali (Juhi Chawla) and their little son, the unfortunately nicknamed Banku (Aman Siddiqui), in an old haveli rented by his employers. It’s a very large house and much is made of its largeness (“Upar chhat bhi hai!” the freshly arrived tenants marvel in unison, leaving us to imagine what the place might have looked like if it had been otherwise). As Banku discovers late one night, it’s haunted too: the ghost of a former owner, Kailash Nath (Amitabh Bachchan), doesn’t want people straying into his personal fiefdom and will do everything he can to scare them off. But he hasn’t reckoned with Banku, who starts bossing him around instead.
The early scenes had a very amateurish feel about them, as if they had been written and shot in two or three days. The slapstick, built around Satish Shah as a school principal who covets the children’s lunches, was tedious – you could point out that I’m probably not the target audience for this anyway, but there were a few kids sitting in my row in the hall and they appeared just as unimpressed by the onscreen tomfoolery (they were more animated when an Etam lingerie ad played just before the film began). And while I don’t think it’s possible for Juhi Chawla to be less than likable, she looks tired and worn-out here, a reminder that it’s been exactly 20 years since QSQT and that we too are growing old.
Watching Amitabh in his early scenes, I mused that he may have taken on this role only because he was playing Babban Singh in RGV’s Aag at the time and he could simply step into the studio next door without changing his clothes or washing up. (Personal hygiene is not high on Bhoothnath’s priority list and in the first few scenes he strongly resembles Babban in Aag. Even some of AB’s facial gestures – scowling menacingly at the camera, sticking out his tongue and wiggling it around – play like outtakes from the earlier performance. Bhoothnath’s attempts to scare Banku are just as ineffectual as Babban’s efforts to convince the audience that he is the ultimate bad-ass villain.)
But then, almost imperceptibly (and much to my surprise), the film found its footing and started to improve. As Bhoothnath and Banku develop an unlikely bond, Amitabh slowly sinks his chomps into his role and you sense that he’s enjoying himself (which is an impression I haven’t got in some of his other recent work) in the company of young Siddiqui. There are some good visual effects – I liked the scenes with the dry leaves and the furniture rearrangement, and the goofy touches such as Bhoothnath gliding through the gates of the haveli as if he’s doing the moonwalk. The highlight of the film’s middle section is the gentle, nicely shot song “Chalo Jaane Do”, sung by Amitabh and Juhi in their own voices. (Another song, “Mere Buddy”, where ghost and boy groove and hip-hop with glamorous back-up dancers, isn’t as melodious, but it had me wondering if the support staff were Bhoothnath’s friends from the spirit world – if so, this could be the first convincing explanation for the extras in a Bollywood dance number moving like zombies.)
The genre-change trick
In earlier reviews, I’ve touched on the schizophrenia of many current Hindi films – the tendency to split themselves down the middle in a simplified attempt to provide viewers “the complete package”, so that the movie you see post-intermission is completely different in tone from what went before. (U, Me aur Hum was the worst offender.) This happens in the final half-hour of Bhoothnath too. When the ghost's back-story is revealed, what started as a fantasy for children changes direction to become a family melodrama – full of teary-eyed speeches and recrimination – about demanding parents, insensitive progeny, the importance of forgiveness and the even greater importance of performing ceremonies around a sacred fire.
I had a mixed response to this change of tone. It’s jarring and inconsistent with the first half of the film, and my feelings about religion and the religious indoctrination of children being what they are, I strongly disapproved of the climactic scenes where Banku is made to participate in a shraadh ritual to help Bhoothnath’s atma find mukti.** Personally, I would have been happier with a climactic martial-arts confrontation between Bhoothnath’s ghost and his evil, westernised daughter-in-law (the source of much of the old man’s misery while he was alive).
But if you accept that this is the film's premise, the dramatic scenes – however misguided in their conception – are well-executed on their own terms. Director Vivek Sharma and his writers seemed more assured and on firmer ground with the family-drama material than with the kiddie stuff that precedes it. Of course, this means that Bhoothnath ends up being something of a hotchpotch, but are we really looking for narrative unity in this movie anyway? The later scenes might feel out of place, but you can just as easily say that about the fantasy song early on, which has Banku and the other schoolkids dressed in colourful cargo pants, vests, headbands and cheerleader outfits, and carrying basketballs and pom-poms.
In the final analysis, the question that must be asked of Bhoothnath, as of many other mainstream Hindi films, is not "Is this movie internally consistent?" but "Does it have enough 'paisa vasool' scenes in it, even if those scenes are randomly dispersed and should logically belong in several different films?" My answer to the second question is yes, but only just, and as always it depends on what your definition of paisa-vasool is.
** Footnote: there IS humour to be found in the shraadh scene, if you know where to look for it: the almost diabolically gleeful expression on little Banku’s face as he pours stuff into the divine fire gives the impression that he’s offering burnt flesh to a very vengeful God. Also, with all the speculation about the testy off-screen relationship between Shah Rukh and Amitabh, there’s something cheekily appropriate about SRK participating in a ritual that will send AB packing to an indeterminate other-world. (At the end of the film, when the ghost disappears and Banku dolefully asks his dad “Papa, mera Bhoothnath kahaan gaya?”, my wife preempted Shah Rukh’s reply: “Tere Bhoothnath ki aisi ki taisi! Ab saare endorsements mere!”)