At one point in Phone Bhoot (2022), the film’s Ghostbuster-inspired lead pair of Major (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Gullu (Ishan Khatter) find themselves holding a magical weapon. Except in their hands, it seems to be nothing more than a fancy, wooden staff. Gullu is not fooled. “Astra hai toh button toh hoga (If it’s an astra, it must have a button),” he says, smoothly reminding us of one of this year’s most successful, worst-written and much-memed Hindi films, Brahmastra Part One: Shiva (2022), in which the hero says about the love of his life, “Isha mera button hai (Isha is my button).” Searching for a button, Gullu prods at the stone atop the staff and with each jab of his fingers, we hear Jaadu’s signature tune from Koi…Mil Gaya (2003). Soon after, Atmaram (Jackie Shroff), the face-tattooed tantric and founder of ASsouls.inc (say it out loud. Don’t be shy), plucks a flute out of thin air and starts playing this tune from Hero (1983).
This is the speed at which stupid jokes and Bollywood references come at you in Phone Bhoot, written by Ravi Shankaran and Jasbinder Singh Bath. Not all of Phone Bhoot is as deliberately derivative as the sequence described above. Sheeba Chadha as a Bengali chudail — she wants to leave the freelancing world and join a more “corporate structure” — is delightfully demented. Her lament that chudails don’t have a work-from-home option is, by far, the most memorable line in Phone Bhoot. When being terrorised by a “Madrasi ghost”, Gullu pulls out a photo of Rajinikanth, which might just be the best exorcism scene in Indian cinema so far. Director Gurmeet Singh opens the film with a voiceover by a grim-sounding baritone who seems to have been resurrected from a Ramsay Brothers production, but for the obvious humour in the monologue. At interval, the voiceover returns and suggests all those canoodling in the corners take a break and buy some popcorn instead. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Katrina Kaif recreates her own Slice commercial and attempts to do a Rekha with Khatter while “In The Night, No Control” from Khiladiyon ka Khiladi (1996) plays in the background. The self-aware and terrifically dumb gags keep coming in Phone Bhoot — which is what makes it a fun watch. If the film had worked out its climax better and had a sub-plot in which Chadha’s chudail and Kaif’s bhootni become buddies, this horror comedy could have aspired for cult status.
While American and European cinema have given the horror genre a makeover to emphasise its capacity for sophisticated socio-cultural critique, in India, we’ve seen horror comedy grow in popularity. Hindi horror films tend to draw upon Indian folklore, which lends a hint of gravitas to these films. Comedy is a device that allows our writers and directors to navigate between the irrationality of believing in the supernatural while respecting these beliefs for their indigenous roots. Each time you laugh at an occult practice or creature in a horror comedy, there’s a scary moment that underscores the power of that tradition. Horror stories contain elements that have left generations of Indians muttering prayers and scuttling towards a light source, which serves to make a film that draws on that legacy feel rooted in a tradition of fear. Phone Bhoot stands apart because it doesn’t attempt to give itself any such airs. There’s no pretence of critique or intelligence or even authenticity. Instead, the film reminds us with every dialogue and scene that it is set in a world that is fake, and is a celebration of stupidity and senselessness. Its roots are not in realism, but in memes and contemporary, commercial cinema. If you expect any intelligence from it (especially after seeing its underwhelming trailer), the joke’s on you.
Phone Bhoot is far from a perfect comedy — quite a few jokes fall flat and the climax is decidedly anti-climactic — but it is refreshing and entertaining because there’s a carefree, unapologetic quality to it. The film knows it’s ridiculous, its actors are well aware they’re in a senseless comedy, and everyone revels in the outlandishness. There’s no underlying message, there’s even less logic and the film is unrepentant about this. Concerned with punchlines rather than plotlines (or consequence), Phone Bhoot is crammed with references to everything from “good man di laltain” to the dancing pallbearers of Ghana, and of course, our own pulpy Hindi cinema. All of which comes together to create a film that is proudly and deliberately idiotic. This is unusual for an industry that produces a bevy of idiotic titles, but rarely are the films as self-aware as Phone Bhoot. Take, for instance, Brahmastra, in which characters toss around phrases like “pyar ki aag” and “mere pyar mein tum jal gayi (you’ve been burned by the fire of my love)” in complete earnestness, as though they’re rich with poetic insight instead of cringe. Phone Bhoot is proof that sometimes, the smarter move is to stick to being stupid.