Directed by: Pawan Kriplani
Writer: Sumit Batheja, Pawan Kripalani, Devashish Makhija, Anuvab Pal, Pooja Ladha Surti
Cinematography: Jayakrishna Gummadi
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Whacky Saif ™ is an independent genre. Over the years, the middle-aged actor has reinvented himself as the Khan that has the most fun on screen. Even when the role is “risky” (whatever that means in 2021) or serious, he still seems to be enjoying the flexibility of his second/third/fourth wind. (Google “Saif is having a blast” and see how many reviews pop up). It’s fun to watch, too: The campy, meta, quasi-rustic, anti-urban characters he plays are often designed as an in-joke about his own career and blue-blooded roots. But this can be a double-edged sword. The movies that subscribe to Whacky Saif tend to suffer from a false sense of security – the writing gets lazier, the filmmaking gets top-heavy, the non-Saif scenes look half-hearted, the folklore is fetishized. It’s like buying a star striker without totally planning the team around him.
Bhoot Police is the newest example. Yet another descendent of Stree, the homegrown Ghostbusters riff contorts to fit the quirkiness of its Saif character rather than the other way around. The result is a middling, watchable-in-parts and instantly forgettable horror comedy that’s far too familiar to stand out. The actor gets his trademark moments. “Feelings are injurious to health” is his anthem. When another character senses a supernatural presence with a shoulder-twitch, he blames it on hormones. His “I see dead people” impression and teasing tone (“Kichkandi” becomes “Kichu”) are admittedly funny. But beyond his little idiosyncrasies – which, to be fair, he can now do in his sleep – the film itself is a remote, by-the-books horror comedy.
To be honest, the Bollywood horror comedy is well past its sell-by date. The novelty has faded. The fatigue is real. I’ve never been a fan. Not just because I find the language to be a copout: makers get the license to pass off bad horror as good comedy and bad comedy as good horror. (Even when it’s unintentional, it becomes intentional. Some call it clever, I call it convenient). But also largely because the same old social messaging – of superstition, blind faith, historical atrocities – is shoehorned in to give this hybrid genre a deeper meaning. The drama is reduced to an afterthought, a template to convince viewers that the film deserves to exist. Bhoot Police is no different. The premise is a playground of easy opposites. The protagonists are a Rajasthani brother duo in the family business of exorcism. Chiraunji (Arjun Kapoor, as Arjun Kapoor) is the idealistic one, a believer in ghosts and a student of their late father’s tantric genius. Vibhooti (Khan) is the gleeful cynic who is clear that they are only exploiting a regressive culture. Their latest client, Maya (Yami Gautam), is a sincere lady who wants to continue her late father’s tea business in Dharamshala. Her sister, Kanika (Jacqueline Fernandez), is a bratty social media child who wants to sell off the property and live in London. In short, every character of the film is not a person but a social dimension of society. There’s also a bitter Punjabi cop (Javed Jaffrey), the girls’ estate manager (the late Amit Mistry) and a bunch of superstitious villagers who only exist to be laughed at.
I suppose that’s another problem with such movies. In pursuit of popcorn entertainment, a lot of tone-deafness goes unchecked. The writing sets out to dispel creaky myths and outdated traditions with its Scooby-Doo-level plotting, before succumbing to these same traditions for the sake of shock value. It’s apparent early on that Vibhooti’s cynicism will be challenged by an actual spirit – there is no place for negativity and arrogance in the movies. The backstory of that spirit is almost laughably offensive, especially because it appears as a cultural footnote to all the VFX and prosthetics. This is a waste of a fertile setup. The film opens with the two brothers in their ‘Ullat Baba & Sons’ van arriving at a mansion to exorcise a young woman. Vibhooti soon finds out she’s faking it to avoid an early marriage. This theme – of the younger generation left with no choice but to exploit the backwardness of their environment – is repeated later in the film. It makes the brothers’ business so much more interesting. But instead of exploring this theme beyond the ‘twist’ angle, the film slogs towards a Vikram-Bhatt-esque climax that involves cabins, ceilings and ghouls.
The irony is lost upon the makers. Then again, some pop-cultural humour – like Saif looking at a sheepish Arjun when someone declares that “nepotism has ruined the country,” a running joke about juice (“How’s the juice?”), and a mandatory demonetisation dialogue – seems to be enough these days. After all, if a mediocre film is self-aware, it’s not really mediocre, right? Right?