Cast: Katrina Kaif, Ishaan Khatter, Siddhant Chaturvedi
Director: Gurmmeet Singh
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
It is wacky, wild and weird in a way that takes a lot of doing to get used to. From its opening sequence on, Phone Bhoot is a maelstrom of sorts. Whether you can relate to and enjoy the eccentric horror comedy of Phone Bhoot will hinge solely on whether you have a taste for the bizarre. If you do, the Excel Entertainment-produced film serves up a full complement of inducements. It stops at absolutely nothing in its pursuit of all that is odd and awkward in the occult.
Phone Bhoot, directed by Gurmmeet Singh (whose credits include Mirzapur and a few episodes of Inside Edge, besides films such as What the Fish and Sharafat Gayi Tel Lene) takes a calculated shot at Bhool Bhulaiya-like whimsy. The results are uneven but not wholly pointless.
The makers of the film believe that Phone Bhoot represents an idea that can be milked beyond the limit of a single movie. A spectral sutradhar who presents a voiceover narrative in the beginning, middle and end of the film points to a sequel being in the realms of possibility. Are we excited at this point? One isn’t entirely sure.
The film’s flights of fancy do not land on the right tarmac all the time, but it succeeds in assembling a bunch of gags that, considered together, delivers some mirth, some madness, and a whole lot of manic moments driven by a cast that is in perfect sync with the madcap spirit of the film.
A wandering soul, Ragini (Katrina Kaif), as seductive as hell, surfaces out of the blue and sells a business idea to two bumbling self-styled bhoot-busters, Sherdil Shergill ‘Major’ (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Galileo Parthasarathy ‘Gullu’ (Ishaan Khattar). The two lads, one from Punjab, the other from Tamil Nadu, have grown up obsessed with ghosts and ghouls and have inevitably found each other.
The two are at odds with real people, especially Major’s papa and Gullu’s appa. The former wants his son to join the army, the latter hopes his son will become a scientist one day. However, in the single scene that the two dads (Manu Rishi Chadda and Kedar Shankar) appear, they make no bones about the fact that they have all but given up on the boys.
Turns out that the itinerant soul who has made her way into their life has a plan much larger than what the drifter duo can comprehend to begin with. When they figure out what they are being led into, they baulk at first and then opt to continue to play along no matter what the cost is. They have nothing to lose except their self-loathing and the disheartening taunts of the world.
They find themselves willy-nilly on a collision course with an evil ‘soul-catcher’ Atmaram (Jackie Shroff), whose power springs from a staff that is both a weapon and a trap for the dead who seek salvation. His fortunes suffer a sharp dip as the two bumbling boys unknowingly offer him stiff competition in the business of liberating souls that are wandering in the world of mortals.
One such soul is Chikni Chudail, played by Sheeba Chaddha, who dons a guise that is a far cry from the screen persona that she usually slips into with elan in slice-of-life family dramas. Farce that fast turns into unbridled camp isn’t her forte. Yet, when she has lines to deliver, not only does she not flub them, she actually owns them with abandon and adds to the film’s quickly rising strangeness quotient.
Parts of Phone Bhoot dial the right numbers, others simply do not connect. Notwithstanding the hit-and-miss affair that it ends up being, the film careens along unabashedly up a path of delirious absurdity as the honest ghostbusters come up against pernicious forces that are out to tame them and put them out of business.
Phone Bhoot incorporates many a nod to Hindi popular cinema of the 1980s and later, the most notable being one that alludes to the start of Jackie Shroff’s career. The voluble character that the Bollywood veteran plays turns to his young adversaries and mocks them: “Asli hero idhar khada hai, since 1983.” He proceeds to play a tune from the actor’s debut film, Subhash Ghai’s Hero, on a flute.
Nothing is more instantly reminiscent of Bollywood’s past as the villain’s den in which the climax plays out, no holds barred. Shroff delights in the excesses that he is allowed to freely indulge in. His co-actors are in lockstep with him as Atmaram tries to stop the lassi-and-black-coffee combination of Major and Gullu from finding a way to turn the tables on him.
Ravishing Ragini isn’t the only phantom in Major and Gullu’s side of the battlelines. They have their very own guardian ghost, Raka (Surendra Thakur), who occupies a central place in their home dominated by posters of movies titled Cheekhti Deewar and Bandh Darwaza. Just the setting that a bhatakti aatma would need no invitation to float into.
Katrina Kaif literally floats in and out of the film until her back-story, recounted blow-by-blow by Ragini herself in the second half, turns her into the central figure, a dead woman with a real mission. Siddhant Chaturvedi, essaying the brash and quick-on-the-draw Major, fits the bill. But the actor who walks away with the film, and quite effortlessly at that, is Ishaan Khattar. As the nerdy Gullu, he brings both charm and spunk to bear upon his performance.
Phone Booth isn’t an earth-shattering, game-changing deal for the genre but it has the feel of a full-on mad hatters’ party where everything goes. It isn’t the least bit apologetic about it. That is the film’s principal strength. Pulling it off is anything but easy, as the many missteps in the film’s zany arc show, but the caper does not run itself ragged. That, by all reckoning, should be counted as a success.
Recommended but with a minor health warning: Phone Bhoot isn’t for all palates.
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