Make no mistake, ‘Bhoothnath Returns’ is a lot of things, but it is not subtle – it is essentially a children’s film that takes the trouble not to insult the intelligence of children as well as the adults accompanying them…
Three years ago, two filmmakers directed the children’s film Chillar Party, which went on to win a National Award. One of the two – Vikas Bahl – is 2014’s first critical darling, having helmed the delightful ‘Queen’, which continues to draw in audiences for repeat viewings. The other, Nitesh Tiwari, is the man behind this week’s release, Bhoothnath Returns, a sequel to 2008’s Bhoothnath. There’s no comparison that can be drawn between the two films, of course. ‘Queen’ is a commercial-indie hybrid with an atypically strong female lead. ‘Bhoothnath Returns’ features an indefatigable Amitabh Bachchan in the lead role and utilises an aesthetic Indian audiences have grown to love in the past decade – the Rajkumar Hirani way.
In this sequel, which has the unmistakeable soul of a Munnabhai film, Tiwari borrows Hirani’s tried-and-tested approach to storytelling that mixes calculated irreverence with overly optimistic world-views. At the same time, his vision is a lot more authentic and unflinching than the 3 Idiots director’s rose-tinted, escapist vision. Bachchan reprises his role as Bhootnath, the avuncular ghost with a heart of gold, who returns to Earth to – yes, it’s true – contest an election in Dharavi against the local goon Bhau (Boman Irani, in top form). As ridiculous as its central conceit sounds, this is a very entertaining film that works for three reasons. The first is pint-sized Parth Bhalerao as the plucky Akhrot, a boy who is the only one who can see Bhoothnath (he is also alive, in case you were expecting a Sixth Sense sort of twist). Much of the film’s warmth, especially in its crisp and crackling first half, comes from the chemistry between him and Bachchan.
Bhalerao is a natural scene-stealer, and leaves the Big B choking on his dust-cloud on most occasions. While the script mostly requires him to wise-crack his way through, he is astoundingly good in a stand-out emotional scene with his mother towards the end, in which he displays the maturity of a much older actor. The second factor is casting. Too many mainstream Bollywood films suffer from the malaise of focusing only on the leads with little regard for side characters. Here, casting director Mukesh Chhabria has hand-picked a great set of character actors, such as Sanjay Mishra as a washed-up lawyer and Brijendra Kala as Bhau’s right-hand man. The script, written largely by Tiwari and Piyush Gupta, takes care to make characters ask the right questions and the acting across the board is largely restrained, making even the corny moments a lot more bearable than they otherwise would have been. The third factor, which is probably the most important, is timing. Make no mistake, ‘Bhoothnath Returns; is a lot of things, but it is not subtle – it is essentially a children’s film that takes the trouble not to insult the intelligence of children as well as the adults accompanying them.
A pre-interval montage bizarrely marks a shift in tone for the film, from breezy comedy to public service announcement, with images and newsreel footage of poverty, corruption and violence from across the country. As the second half proceeds to turn into an Indian Elections 101 lesson, what prevents one from losing interest is the obvious effort to draw real-life parallels that are now impossible to ignore. Given that we’re slap-bang in the middle of what is being called India’s most important election, it is hard not to compare Bhau’s grandstanding with Narendra Modi’s speeches; meanwhile, Bhoothnath exhibits Kejriwal-like traits which also includes being perpetually dressed like it’s winter. That being said, Trivedi is astute enough to ensure that there is a tonal consistency to the film, be it through Hitesh Sonik’s strings-heavy background score or Kamaljeet Negi’s cinematography (which utilises slow-mo and Steadicam movement very effectively, especially in a couple of key sequences). For the most part, barring perhaps the last half hour of the film, its most shamelessly manipulative moments are tempered with deliberate humour. What’s heartening about this film is that it seems to be fully aware that it is being presented as an ‘election product’, and it seems to take that in its stride and play it as its strength. Talk about shrewd politics.