Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bhoot camp: notes on Bhoothnath

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!”)


  1. "Tere Bhoothnath ki aisi ki taisi! Ab saare endorsements mere"
    ROTFL true
    i slept through the second half of movie . There was a Power cut in Noida and AC was good in Multiplex so it was not That bad a deal for me :)

  2. The problem with our films is more with the lack of working with the script than the theme of stories.

    Compare this to 'sixth sense'. WE will know the difference in quality

  3. Compare this to 'sixth sense'. WE will know the difference in quality

    Karthik: I'm not a big fan of The Sixth Sense, but that aside, I don't think this is a valid comparison. Despite the ghost-seeks-therapy similarities, the tone of the two films is very different.

  4. Jabberwock, I had heard some murmurings of Tim Burton's Beetlejuice being an inspiration. Is that true?

  5. Tipu: I heard that too, but I haven't seen Beetlejuice unfortunately. Am a Tim Burton fan generally speaking though.

  6. The quality of Bollywood dancers has deteriorated a lot since their hay days in the late 80's and especially early 90's. Sometimes, I would watch just the expressions on the men and women in the second or third row of umpteen zombies and try to guess the compensation they may have received for their great services. Nowadays everything is too professional (thanks to schools like Shiamak Davar's) and thus, not much fun.

  7. The title Bhootnath and the kid's name Banku makes one think of earthy, local, Hindi children's literature which is very cute. But that's about the cutest thing about the film apart from the special effects in the film's title and the leaf scenes.

  8. >>"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."

    The fantasy of Banku and his adversary being gangleaders was all very well, but did they have to have the girls all dressed up scantily like pouting molls? Tad offputting, I thought.

    The end was painfully maudlin - and any thought of internal consistency was lost, I felt, what with the dukhi son not having been forgiven and the ghost wandering around anyway - in prep for Bhoothnath 2, heh?

  9. Bhootnath was recommended to me by a friend(who also recommends Apne). The problem with Bhoothnath was they made a mess out of what could have been a good movie. The Intelligence, mischief of child seems forced (Compare it with Mr.India, where children were indeed endearingly mischievous). Forced songs, Contrived Moral Education(Ghosts helps him otherwise but not in competition, just one lecture on fairplay and the protagonist wins without any merit, wow!!!),Half baked backstories, equally half baked resolutions.It was real waste of money.

  10. My rants may not be convincing, but I guess I have put more thought in it... than that was put it Bhoothnath's Story Development.

  11. It was so heartening to read your views on Juhi Chawla. I had a love-hate relationship with her till I watched an interview of her's in which she talked about her brother's tragic accident and his ongoing comatose state. Her tears suddenly humanized this under rich celebrity, and since then, I can't help but find her endearing. It helps that she's been working in some good, independent movies of late such as My Brother Nikhil, Teen Deewarein etc. I just wish there 35+ women who've proven their worth in the commercial sphere would not have to scrounge around for morsels while their older peers like sRK, Salman, Ajay, Amir etc play men half their age and still get to earn in the millions. Can we ever evolve as an audience, though I too wonder how I would response to a grey haired SRK romancing an ageing Juhi. Would I enjoy the fact that they're older? Or would I be reminded of my own ageing, and therefore, saddened by the movie? I wish we'd dilute the appeal of youth somehow; we don't die on reaching 35 or 40, you know...Nice post, btw