How times change. In 1984, when Amitabh Bachchan was still playing the angry young man, his cure for the malignant tumour of political corruption, in Inquilaab, was to become Chief Minister and whip out a machine gun and pump bullets into the members of his party. Now that he’s older – and, on screen, milder – his methods are less severe, more practical. In Bhoothnath Returns, he’s still appalled by the self-serving nature of politicians. He still decides to make things right by standing for elections, by changing the System from the inside. But this time, he leaves it to the people, to us. If we want change, we have to vote in the right people. I was reminded of that other political drama from 1984, Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avtar, where Rajesh Khanna becomes Chief Minister. At the end, he addresses a gathering and says that when we want to marry off a daughter or a sister, we carefully consider the boy’s pros and cons and come to a decision only when we are really sure he will take care of his wife. Why, then, are we so uncaring about those we elect to take care of the country? Why do we vote on the basis of religion, on the basis of who we know, or on the basis of who promises us more goodies? If we are dishonest when it comes to voting, then why should we be surprised when the people we elect to power turn out to be dishonest? Midway through these elections, it’s a sobering thought.
But Bhoothnath Returns, directed by Nitesh Tiwari, isn’t a sober movie. One of the problems with it is that it doesn’t know what kind of movie it is. At first, it looks like a kiddie romp, with Bhoothnath (Bachchan) leaving the world of ghosts – some kind of castle in the clouds – for another stint on earth, where he befriends a boy named Akhrot (Parth Bhalerao). With his tweed coat and thickly framed glasses, Bhoothnath looks like a retired English professor, but as in the earlier film, Bhoothnath, he’s charged up by the presence of the boy, who is delightful (and Bhalerao plays him without a trace of self-consciousness). Akhrot likes to show foreign tourists around Dharavi, where he lives, and he exaggerates the horror-show aspects of life in a slum – “tadka lagake” is how he cheekily calls it. But he needs more money, and Bhoothnath suggests the perfect scheme. Bhoothnath will drive out ghosts from under-construction buildings and Akhrot will pocket the fees from grateful builders.
And while doing this, the film slowly transforms into a gentle Rajkumar Hirani dramedy: Munnabhai Bane Mukhya Mantri. (Before this, though, there’s a brief hint at a Manoj Kumar social drama, when, over a Mehengayi maar gayi-like song, we’re shown the reality of the unshining India.) Bhoothnath and Akhrot encounter lazy and corrupt babus, and they decide that something needs to be done about it. Soon, they find themselves in the office of a lawyer (Sanjay Mishra), asking if it’s necessary to be alive in order to stand for elections. The satire in these portions is top notch, and the realisation that we need a bhooth, with its supernatural powers, to fix things is both sad and scary. At the same time, the film isn’t all feel-good fantasy. There is the sense of a debate when Bhau (Boman Irani; is there another actor who balances cruelty and comedy so expertly?), Bhoothnath’s competitor in the elections, offers to step down because he can never hope to match Bhoothnath’s powers, and, unlike Bhoothnath, he is bound by society and laws. This, really, is the problem, isn’t it? We want good things to happen. But, being in a democracy, we also want these things to happen the right way, the liberal way, the lawful way. How surprising is it, then, that nothing ever seems to happen?
And then, the film becomes yet another movie – a tearjerker, unfortunately. Bachchan is given a few too many speeches, and worse, Akhrot is put in danger. Suddenly, the director begins to wield a bludgeon. Instead of amping up the optimism – we see kids, future citizens, joining Bhoothnath’s party as workers, but nothing comes of this – he decides to make things “realistic.” (The lawyer gets to voice these misgivings.) Yes, we know bad things happen to good people who decide to enter politics, but if you want to tell that story, you shouldn’t wait for the last half-hour of an already overlong movie to get to it. Still, as a social document, Bhoothnath Returns isn’t without value. Inquilaab and Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avtar were released within months of each other, and they came to be considered zeitgeist films, filled with bitterness and cynicism and rage. Three decades later, we’ve had, almost back to back, Youngistaan and Bhoothnath Returns, which are filled with simple-minded hope and the belief that good things will happen to good people. Have we really changed that much? Or is it just that the multiplex popcorn goes down better when things don’t get too disturbing?
* bhooth = ghost
* Inquilaab = see here (on second thoughts, don’t)
* Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avtar = see here (on second thoughts, don’t)
* tadka lagake = spicing it up
* Munnabhai Bane Mukhya Mantri = Munnabhai becomes Chief Minister
* Mehengayi maar gayi = see here
* babus = government officials
* Youngistaan = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.