Phone Bhoot Review: A Terrifyingly Bad Horror Comedy
Director: Gurmmeet Singh
Writers: Jasvinder Singh Bath, Ravi Shankaran
Cast: Katrina Kaif, Ishaan Khatter, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Jackie Shroff
At some point during Phone Bhoot, my phone mysteriously shut down on its own. Perhaps it got so ashamed of the notes I was typing that it simply gave up. Who can blame the machine for exhibiting artificial intelligence? (At least someone is). Random scribbles on my toes might have made more sense. That’s the kind of vacant nonsense Phone Bhoot is, under the guise of that notorious steak-on-dessert genre: The self-referential horror comedy. The 137-minute-long glorified internet skit reminds me of the sort of inane annual performance that a PJ-cracking uncle puts on only to amuse his family and bask in their attention. They laugh not because he’s funny but because he’s hopelessly unfunny – and also because everyone helped with the production. The cast and crew screenings must have been an in-joke-riddled blast, but show it to a sane stranger and they’ll think you’re messing with them.
It feels surreal to write about this in 2022 (or ever), but here goes. Two broke horror fanatics named Galileo (Ishaan Khatter) and Major (Siddhant Chaturvedi) – who live in a spooky apartment that might prompt a four-year-old Halloween nut to fire their interior designer – start an exorcism business with a friendly ghost named Ragini (Katrina Kaif). They not only free the possessed humans of wandering spirits (“bhatakti aatma”), but also reform the spirits by giving them moksha (salvation). Their start-up success eats into the profits of a dark entity called Atmaram (Jackie Shroff), who runs an underworld lair that maintains the badness of demons and ghosts. A clash is imminent, and Ragini becomes a key character in this aggressively juvenile comedy that expects us to crack up at deliberately cringey quips like “bhootni itni sexy nahi hote (female ghosts are never sexy)” and “dude, we don’t need your doodh (milk)”. If you’re wondering what that sound is, that’s me sighing from my perfectly normal apartment in Mumbai.
Phone Bhoot descends from a long line of dated Bollywood parodies that somehow looks worse than the culture it spoofs. A freelancing Bengali witch (oh, Sheeba Chaddha) fears the two humans who keep trying to straighten her twisty feet. When she flees, another ghost points out that she’s almost reached Lahore – cue Gadar soundtrack. I’m making absolutely none of this up. Katrina Kaif’s Ragini recreates her Slice ad to seduce Galileo into helping her with a mission. Later on, both of them recreate the steamy Akshay Kumar-Rekha shower scene from Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi to make Major (whom she calls “Major disappointment” with the confidence of someone who has a Netflix stand-up special) jealous. There are many more examples, but I’ve run out of patience.
In their first ghost-busting case, the team encounters a “Madrasi aatma” in a little girl’s body, whom they actually subdue by flaunting a Superstar Rajinikanth photo on their phone. Needless to say, better gags are cracked on my college Whatsapp groups. Another time, the K3G title track plays (only for the 763rd time in Hindi cinema) during a bromantic slow-motion scene between the North Indian Major and the South Indian Galileo. Another time, a Punjabi ghoul with plaited hair (or “choti” – leading to puns ranging from “choti si asha” to a DDLJ punchline I’d rather not corrupt) can’t help but break into a frenzied dance when her potential victims belt out a Punjabi pop song. The writers room must have been a hoot; I can’t say my cinema hall was half as raucous. Then there are the film-making gags that exist so that we don’t notice the mediocrity of the film itself. A character cheekily saying “madad (help) montage” before the film breaks into that musical montage doesn’t make it any less of a cliche. Characters preparing for a “flashback sequence” by sitting in front of a projector with popcorn might have been witty in the pre-Youtube Scary Movie era.
Such movies virtually demand that you have poor taste in life so that you aren’t burdened by ‘intellectualism’ – or the basic ability to think – when you watch them. Nonsense can be entertaining, too, if the writing finds a way to integrate the lazy homages into the playful plot (read: Shaitan Haveli). But Phone Bhoot manages precisely none of that. If nothing, I’ve given up on deep breaths during stressful screenings and moved on to laughter therapy – a la Dr. Asthana from Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. So if you hear high-pitched giggles the next time you’re watching a distinctly stupid comedy, don’t panic. You’re not the problem. Remember that these are sounds of pain and self-improvement. Come say hello, and we can laugh – at ourselves – together.