A kid gets chummy with a ghost in a winning fantasy that unfortunately falls apart towards the end. Plus, the most horrendous star-son launch ever.
MAY 11, 2008 – WHEN I HEARD THAT VIVEK SHARMA’S BHOOTHNATH was about a ghost doing its darnedest to scare away the family that’s moved into its home, I was afraid we were in for a retread of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice – but, thankfully, the only Burtonian bit about this film is its No Smoking-ish credits sequence, where a candle is snuffed out and the names of the cast and crew are conjured up from the wisps of smoke that have apparently invaded the entire house. Strangely, though, that’s the only hint of the macabre, and what follows is a most sweet-natured fantasy for children. Except for the last half-hour or so – where the director appears to have realised there are grown-ups in the audience too, and in a desperate, last-minute attempt at throwing sops at them, he lets the free-floating whimsy curdle into tiresome melodrama – Bhoothnath is the kind of film you rarely ever see made here, where something like Koi… Mil Gaya or Krissh is what passes for children’s entertainment.
I mention these films not just because Hrithik Roshan’s caped crusader inspired thousands of Indian boys to stretch their arms and leap off their couches – and, reportedly, off an apartment rooftop in Patna – but also because of the basketball game where the hero’s newfound alien friend supplied the superpowers so he could beat a bunch of bullying opponents. Here too, there’s the incidence of a sport – Banku (Aman Siddiqui) versus a schoolmate in a hurdle race. Here too, Banku has a newfound alien friend – well, alienated from mankind, anyway; he’s the titular ghost, played by Amitabh Bachchan – with supernatural powers. Here too, Banku’s bullying opponent has been winning all the races so far, and crowing about the fact. But instead of Bhoothnath fixing the clincher race in Banku’s favour, he advises the boy, “Sports mein cheating nahin,” and that Banku can win if he simply tries harder – and sure enough, Banku walks away with the prize. I’m not at all a fan of messages in movies, but this particular instance works beautifully because it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d tell a child; it’s exactly how you’d shape a child.
That’s not to say Bhoothnath is a quasi parenting manual gussied up with mainstream-movie clothes – because some of the mainstream elements are a little unnerving in a film targetted at children. In one of the many underwhelming songs by Vishal-Shekhar, two kids who are at loggerheads at school are reimagined as rival gangland leaders – it’s like a hip-hop video version of Bugsy Malone – while little girls in loads of bling pose alongside as their… molls? Worse, hos? Elsewhere, in the Mere buddy number, Bhoothnath and Banku are accompanied in their exertions by shapely extras in little, black dresses and fishnet stockings. Then again, I guess this is nothing when compared to what’s usually seen in our “wholesome” family fare – and let’s face it, almost every film released in our country is deemed fit for family consumption. (Do you know many people who vet what their kids are watching?)
Bhoothnath gets going when Banku moves into a haunted mansion with his parents – played by Juhi Chawla (whose helium-voiced mugging makes it appear that she saw the film as an extension of her Kurkure ads, especially with so many packets of the munchies popping up so frequently) and Shah Rukh Khan (guest starring as her husband, and charmingly laidback; free an actor from the pressures of carrying a movie, and it’s a nice surprise what you end up with sometimes) – and the early scenes set a tone that’s at once childish and childlike. I did find myself getting restless every now and then – when is the story going to get going, I kept wondering – but the director finds interesting and inventive ways to appeal to the part of you that still responds to innocence and fun and wide-eyed wonder.
The special effects sequences, especially, are a joy. The visual trickery in Bhoothnath is easily the most seamless, most accomplished I’ve seen in an Indian film of this kind – but what makes these scenes really work is the context. You don’t have to be a child to laugh at the moment where Banku tricks Bhoothnath into cleaning the house. The ghost lines up the pieces of furniture – as yet unpacked – in two neat rows, and on his signal, they chug forward to the accompaniment of choo-choo train effects in the soundtrack. And some of these effects come with unexpected grace notes, as when Bhoothnath clears the floor of dry leaves with a mighty expulsion of breath, and when Banku points to the last, remaining leaf, he inhales it and chomps it down. (I was so delighted with this touch, I’m going to be quite upset if someone reveals it’s been taken from such-and-such foreign film.)
Even the songs, when they appear to have been better left on the editing-room floor, surprise you with lovely flourishes. When Banku’s mother slaps him, Bhoothnath launches into Chalo jaane do, and part of his cheering-up routine includes a click of the fingers that results in a passel of clowns materialising with balloons on a beachside. And in addition, there’s a human special effect in the form of Satish Shah, in high-cartoon mode, as a headmaster with an indeterminate accent – “control” comes out as “can troll” – prone to digging into his students’ lunch boxes. But after filling about three-quarters of his film with such warm-hearted whimsy, Sharma begins to fill us in on the ghost’s back story, and Bhoothnath begins to fall spectacularly apart. This is the kind of film that established its irreverence by mocking the mother as not just a bad cook, but also a lazy one who constantly fed her family sandwiches (and, perhaps, the occasional bowl of Maggi) – and suddenly, the director whisks us off into the kind of movie where mothers were gaajar ka halwa specialists, where it’s all about tradition and cultural values and all that sort of thing.
The ending is particularly grotesque, featuring a religious ceremony – a shraddh – for the emancipation of souls, something that Banku is forced to perform for Bhoothnath because the latter’s son (named Vijay, no less) has unresolved issues and won’t take up this responsibility. Why is this suitable material for a children’s film? And why wasn’t all this wrapped up in a tidier fashion, when Bhoothnath advises Banku about the virtues of forgiveness? Couldn’t they have skirted the last-minute melodramatic mess by simply throwing this advice back at the advice-giver, when Banku realises Bhoothnath hasn’t forgiven Vijay for whatever reasons? That miscalculation apart, the leads make Bhoothnath worthwhile. Bachchan goes the gamut from crotchety spirit to caring grandfather-figure, his raggedy-man guise and mottled-Kabuki makeup gradually giving way to the actual human being we know and love. And Siddiqui brought out for me some of the most endearing aspects of childhood. When Bhoothnath says he’ll eventually become a star and asks Banku to watch out for him in the skies every night, Banku can’t help but ponder about a technicality: but what if there’s a cloud? After all these years of children acting like adults in our films, how refreshing it is to find them being kids again.
IMAGINE YOGEETA BALI WITH A FIVE O’CLOCK SHADOW and a mild case of laryngitis, and you’d have a fair idea of what Mimoh Chakraborty is all about. The resemblance is uncanny – though you wish he’d inherited his genes from his talented father instead. Mithun Chakraborty scaled huge heights as an A-list star – albeit in a host of B-list movies – before settling into the comfortable groove of a C-list stud. And based on Raj NC Sippy’s Jimmy, Mimoh (who plays, uh, Jimmy) wants to get to that comfortable groove right away, without suffering the ignominies of nationwide stardom and hysterical fandom – hence this awful, outdated mess about being slapped with a murder rap and trying to wiggle out of it, as girls on the soundtrack go “zu zu zu zu.” The comedy is terrible (Shakti Kapoor enters the frame cupping a buttock), the romance is worse (after enduring a fainting spell, Jimmy coos into his equally vapid girlfriend’s ears that he’s looking forward to the day she’ll go through fainting spells; get it?), and let’s not even get into the choreography (Mimoh executing signature MJ moves to a Billie Jean lift) and the screenplay and the performances. After Jimmy is exonerated, his mother exults, “Bhagwan ne meri prarthna sun li.” If only He’d listened to ours.
Copyright ©2008 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.