‘To believe in things you can see and touch is no belief at all, but to believe in the unseen is a triumph and a blessing.’ Bhoot Police opens with a quote by Abraham Lincoln as an epigraph. For a film about two ne’er-do-well ghost-hunters operating in the Indian hinterland who have probably never heard of good ’ol Abe, I found that the film’s best joke. For the rest, the film is only intermittently funny, not scary at all and, with a long-winded climax, becomes a tedious affair with little flair.
Welcome to our very own desi ghostbusters – the innovatively named brothers Vibhooti [Saif Ali Khan] and Chiraunji [Arjun Kapoor]. We see them first in a Mystery Machine-type van arriving at a haveli to exorcise a young girl seemingly possessed by the spirit of her grandfather. It turns out that the girl is faking it so she can get her conservative family to let her study further. Vibhooti is all game to go along with the girl’s charade as long as it rakes in the moolah, and ends up incorporating a funny ‘beti bachao beti padhao’ bit into the mix as well.
We get quick insights into their characters, offering an interesting contrast and giving the film its emotional core. Vibhooti, the elder brother, is a sceptic who debunks all paranormal claims and goes along with the earnest believer, Chiraunji (armed with his dead tantric father’s ghost-hunting handbook), only to make some quick money out of their clients’ ignorance and gullibility. And since the one species this nation abounds in is the superstitious, the brothers are a busy lot.
At a tantric fair — where we come across an assortment of babas, including one who proclaims himself ‘The Baba who sold his Maruti’ — the brothers are engaged by a young woman, Maya [Yami Gautam], whose tea estate in Dharamshala is being haunted by a spirit of the mountains called Kichkandi. It transpires that over 20 years ago, their father had warded off a similar spirit at the estate. While Vibhooti senses an opportunity to make quick money, Chiraunji sees in it a means to put his father’s teaching to work.
Arriving at the estate, we are introduced to Maya’s sister Kanika [Jacqueline Fernandez, in adorable form, particularly in a throwaway bit denouncing the brothers for perpetuating nepotism even in the supernatural] who is clearly sceptical and who provides the film’s ‘twist’, one that you can see coming for miles. There’s Inspector Chhedilal [Jaaved Jaffrey] who has a score to settle with the brothers, leading to another of the film’s genuinely hilarious moments, when Vibhooti refers to Chedilalal’s being married off to a goat to ward off an evil spirit as ‘animal husbandry’.
These sporadic one-liners, the jokes coming in fits and starts (there’s a reference to projectile vomit as ‘atma ka juice’), enliven the proceedings every time the narrative flags, which is often. Given that Bhoot Police fails miserably in getting the ‘bhoot’ aspects of it right. There’s nary a scare here, and even by the abysmal standards of the genre in Hindi cinema, the effects are laughably bad.
The actors are clearly having fun, and some of it rubs off on the viewer too. Saif Ali Khan, in particular, is a breeze — with his love for episodes of Naagin, demanding a GST for his services or even going ‘I see dead people!’. Arjun Kapoor provides able foil. But one can never get over the feeling that one, the material is too thin for a two-hour-long film; two, the actors are not earthy enough for the characters they are playing.
The ghostbuster duo definitely have a sequel waiting in the wings. One hopes some of these issues will be addressed to make a more rounded outing that will be more than just mildly amusing and feel less infantile. Not to mention the makers addressing their ambivalence about the material — are they debunking the paranormal, or do they think that the services of Vibhooti and Chiraunji are actually called for?
Director: Pavan Kripalani
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Arjun Kapoor, Yami Gautam, Jacqueline Fernandez, Jaaved Jaffrey
Platform: Disney + Hotstar
Rating: 2 & 1/2 stars
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)