Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Parth Bhalerao, Boman Irani, Sanjay Mishra, Usha Jadhav, Brijendra Kala
Direction: Nitesh Tiwari
Have you ever been stuck behind those overloaded, flopped-all-over gunny sack-on-a-truck thingies? The ones that move slowly, gobble up the road and make you trudge behind slowly, fatigued and frustrated? If you have, you’ll experience deja vu while watching Bhoothnath Returns.
This sequel to a mediocre film, to be fair, rides on some very clever comic ideas. But it is so overburdened with heavy and sanctimonious desh-bachchao sermons that the interesting ideas get squished and punctured.
As far as lessons in how to be a model citizen of a collapsed state are concerned, the film’s politics is earnest and well-meaning. But the film so quickly and so often abandons humour to lecture us seriously, that Bhoothnath Returns stops being a comedy and turns into one uppity finger being wagged continually in our face. As an educational, inspirational and timely video for the Election Commission, Bhoothnath Returns is bang-on. But as a comedy powered by Amitabh Bachchan, it’s got flat tyres.
The film begins on borrowed ideas -- from Robert Schwentke’s R.I.P.D. and Harishankar Parsai’s short story, Bholaram Ka Jeev. Kailash Nath, aka Bhoothnath (Amitabh Bachchan), goes to Bhoot World where he encounters a bureaucracy that is as impervious and sadistic as it is on earth. He seeks punar janam as a human being and is put in a long queue to await his turn. Even though he is resigned to this, he is disconcerted by the other bhoots laughing in his face. During his stint as a bhoot on prithvi, in the 2008 Bhoothnath (which was based on Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost), he could not even scare a child. And since he’s done bhooton ka moonh kala, the other bhoots now ridicule him.
This Bhoot World, which from the outside looks like an English castle far from the moor, is a cute creation inside with interesting characters, flying files and some ghostly glitches. It looks like a place we could spend some time in.
But Bhoothnath is embarrassed and asks Bade Babu for a chance to redeem himself. He gets it and returns to prithvi to scare some children and regain the respect of his co-apparitions.
Bhoothnath lands in a tiny playground with hefty children. He still can’t scare children, and is sitting dejected when a boy walks up to him and starts chatting. Dharavi resident Akhrot (Parth Bhalerao) can see Bhoothnath and thinks him an elderly loner. What follows is a funny exchange, one of several brief ones that form the film’s humorous but emotional core -- the cool dadaji and his caring but spunky pota sparring jokingly.
Akhrot is not scared of Bhoothnath, decides to help him scare the children. Mission is accomplished and their equation is established -- Akhrot is wiser, smarter and scarier than Bhoothnath, so he’ll lead and Bhoothnath will follow. Bhoothnath wants to return the favour, so they become a team of bhoot-busters, taking cases on commission basis from builders whose buildings are haunted by skulking, sulking bhoots. Most of these souls are lingering because of some pending earthly business.
Bhoothnath visits each one and listens to the bhoot’s sad katha -- all of which involve a corrupt sarkari officer who is sitting on the dead man’s rightful claim while his destitute family suffers. These problems are fixed in ways that would make Munna Bhai’s chest swell up with creator’s pride.
Akhrot’s mother (Usha Jadhav), initially petrified of this talking bhoot, is now reconciled to the fact that her son is in partnership with a bhoot, especially after a TV set arrives and the year’s rent for their kholi gets paid in advance.
But soon A&B's enterprise is held hostage by Bhau (Boman Irani), a Dharavi goonda-cum-MP, when he commissions a job that is morally repugnant.
This issue needs to be fixed urgently, but it can’t be done by scaring one man. This requires systemic change and for this the film shifts gear and goes for satire that’s cunning, caustic and delightful.
I don’t want to spoil this twist for you. Suffice to say that Bhoothnath and Akhrot are now on a mission to rectify a system that doesn’t work because of the people who are put in charge. The route the film takes to accomplish this is both absurd and subversive, and therein lies the sparkling kernel of Bhoothnath Returns. As this absurdity turns into reality, chucklingly, the political commentary is scathing, superb -- not just on the system, but also on people who are more hopeless than guileless and will, like dizzy, desperate rats, follow any piper. It’s an ingenious conceit the writers have crafted, taking care of the details and technicalities involved. Also, they don’t pit the team of Akhrot and Bhoothnath against a wilting, witless rival. Bhau is creative, corrosive and throws A&B off balance often.
But before the film takes this interesting turn, a documentary of sorts plays out showcasing all the ills that plague India -- terrorism, poverty, rape, floods, drought, even old age, and the country itself teetering on one big garbage pile. This is an all-violins-out conducted tour of cliched, sometimes banal and inappropriate images that say nothing substantial except about the ineptness of the film’s writer-director, Nitesh Tiwari (he has written the film with Piyush Gupta). It gives us pause, to ponder how Rajkumar Hirani would have executed this delicate curlicue in the script.
Though this part of the film is based on a quirk, as it moves into an electoral battle involving the media, corrupt politicians, wayward officials, charges of bhoot-capturing, of elected MPs disappearing, it gets hijacked by cloying bhashans on votebank politics, money power, votes for cash/freebies, and that pet peeve of the film, the non-voting public. The film's national concern is very touching, but it makes the film stink.
Though Bhoothnath Returns has some scenes and exchanges that make you laugh, it doesn’t glide. It has an ungainly waddle. It is, especially in the second half, heavy and preachy, thus requiring the appearance of some superstars to keep us interested.
This outing of Amitabh Bachchan is reminiscent of his righteous voyage last year, Satyagraha. In the small, simple scenes here he’s klutzy and made me wince in disbelief and embarrassment. Often Bachchan looks like a giant negotiating the narrow aisles of a crockery shop, knocking over stuff. He’s better in scenes that summon the quintessential Amitabh Bachchan. When he’s holding forth via monologues -- funny or maudlin -- we get fleeting flashes of the actor and star he once was. Rest of the time he runs on our memory of that actor. The film acknowledges this when Akhrot says to Bhoothnath, “Thoda overacting kiya tu, but India main chalta hai.” This is not just the director being cute, but acutely aware of what’s going on and hoping that disclosure will make it palatable. It does, but only a bit.
Fourteen-year-old Parth Bhalerao is rather good. His Akhrot has a tapori’s body language and lingo and, thankfully, is not precocious. In fact, when his character's hard, akhrot-like veneer drops and we see how vulnerable this kid is, he’s even better. Parth is a good, light-footed dancer to counter AB’s heavy stomping.
Bhoothnath Returns tries to strike a high moral tone in its social messaging, but creatively it doesn’t flinch from being crassly exploitative. It made me cringe so often that I wished this clever concept had been handed over to a directoir with a light touch.
Usha Jadhav keeps it straight and simple, but Boman Irani draws buckets of inspiration from the same well which irrigated his property dealer in Khosla Ka Ghosla. He’s effective no doubt, but we are meeting an old acquaintance with an all-too-familiar crabby temperament....