By Pradeep Menon Nov. 05, 2022
Phone Bhoot is silly, awkward and committed to nonsense to the extent that you don’t mind taking partaking in its idea of fun.
Gurmmeet Singh’s Phone Bhoot has a helpful litmus test right at the top, during its rather left-field disclaimer. The film begins by proudly stating that it has absolutely nothing to do with reality – ‘Haqeeqat’. This, while throwing up on screen, a poster of the 1995 Ajay Devgn-Tabu starrer of the same name. The opening gag tells you right away the kind of humour to expect going forward, and the film stays true to that tone throughout. This is a movie that is absurd, audacious, self-aware, and loaded with pop-culture tributes and references – including frequent ones pointed at its own cast and crew. Individual scenes and punchlines may not always land, but you can’t fault Phone Bhoot with regards to its total commitment to unreserved, brazen inanity. The reception it gets will largely depend on the mood of the beholder for I can imagine ROFLs and walkouts in equal measure.
The man-boys at the centre of the story could have been called Jai and Veeru. Or Bill and Ted. Here, they are nicknamed Major (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Gullu (Ishaan Khatter). The former is unabashedly Punjabi, the latter is (supposedly) Tamilian. Their real names are later revealed to be Sherdil Shergill and Galileo-something respectively (unimportant). The latter’s last name eludes me presently, but it could well have been ‘Madrasi’. Obviously, Phone Bhoot isn’t shy of stereotypes – bhangra and Rajinikanth are both dutifully milked for comedy, along with lassi and filter coffee.
Phone Bhoot is a movie that is absurd, audacious, self-aware, and loaded with pop-culture tributes and references – including frequent ones pointed at its own cast and crew.
The pair happen to be horror nerds, who consistently fail at life on account of their hare-brained entrepreneurial ventures. As screenplay would have it, their paths cross with the mysteriously magnificent, usually leather-clad Ragini (Katrina Kaif), who pitches them a new business idea – a puerile form of ghostbusting and soul-saving, because the two of them are blessed with paranormal gifts. The duo reluctantly goes along for the ride, which sets the three of them on a collision course with a powerful occultist named Aatmaram (Jackie Shroff), who prefers to bottle ghosts up for his own evil intentions.
Along the way, the film goes off on various bizarre tangents – there are goofy villainous sidekicks named Rahu and Ketu, a doomed love story involving a modern-day prince, a Bengali ‘chudail’ (played by the ever-fascinating Sheeba Chadha) who goes from freelance haunting to signing up for Aatmaram’s ‘corporate’ endeavour, and plenty of other jags and cuts that aren’t concerned with any overall coherence. Phone Bhoot is clearly meant to be taken with a pinch of salt, or a drop of something far stronger, preferably psychedelic. On two separate occasions, Major and Gullu actually pop bright green pills that make their heads go wonky. This serves no purpose in any meaningful sense, because even without whatever is supposed to be in those pills, the pair of them are relentlessly on some kind of trip.
In the recent past, Kaif has frequently been the best thing about mediocre movies. Here, she brings her bonafide stardom to the table yet again, usually outdoing the men on display.
The spirits in the film seem to want ‘moksha’ – liberation from earthly existence. Yet, the ones that do attain it, somehow come back when it is convenient – Bhoot Ex Machinas, if you will. Then again, whenever I tried to question logic in Phone Bhoot, I ended up questioning myself instead. After all, this is a film that actually has Katrina Kaif name-checking and even performing her iconic mango juice ad, to entice the boys into going with her plan. Later, when a character pulls out a boAt speaker (to play a Punjabi song in order to distract a Punjabi ghost, no less) I half-expected Aman Gupta to turn up and groove, just for kicks. (Spoiler alert, he doesn’t. Also, Ragini’s backstory surprisingly has nothing to do with an MMS).
In the recent past, Kaif has frequently been the best thing about mediocre movies. Think Zero, or Tiger Zinda Hai. Here, she brings her bonafide stardom to the table yet again, usually outdoing the men on display. Khatter and Chaturvedi, on the other hand, are served by the fact that they are barely burdened with the weight of expectations in this film. Chaturvedi’s Major is a crude oaf, Gullu is more of a gentle romantic. The casting is on point, even though the pair of them alternate between delivering the best lines in the film, as well as some awfully lame ones. Jackie Shroff, meanwhile, is in smashing form after ages. Sometimes, he delivers lines the way he speaks in real life. Other times, he nails the menacing tantrik vibe. And yes, you are reminded of the actor’s legendary affinity towards maternal aunts’ posteriors.
It helps that everyone involved somehow feels as genuinely committed to the off-kilter comedy as the makers of the film are. It’s the kind of film that might lead to a barrage of memes, if nothing else.
Purely in terms of plot, the writing is threadbare. It might technically slot in as a horror comedy, but there’s barely any attempt to truly frighten. In that regard, Pavan Kirpalani’s Bhoot Police probably did a better job of balancing humour and horror. (Amar Kaushik’s Stree probably remains the recent genre standard for Bollywood.) Still, Phone Bhoot tends to keep you on your toes, because you’re constantly playing spot-the-reference or wait-did-he/she-just-say-that. The film’s finest moments usually have very little to do with the central story, and more to do with just how far it can take a nonsensical gag. Like when, for instance, Khatter and Kaif cosplay an iconic A R Rahman – Kamal Haasan duet. It helps that everyone involved somehow feels as genuinely committed to the off-kilter comedy as the makers of the film are. It’s the kind of film that might lead to a barrage of memes, if nothing else.