B.R. Films are characterised by their themes of social relevance and firm, often conservative moral positions. Producer Ravi Chopra continues the tradition laid down by his father – B. R. Chopra in films like the popular Baghban (2004) the less popular Babul (2006)and in his latest offering – Bhoothnath. The custodians of the most laudable values in all these films have been patriarchal characters played by Amitabh Bachchan.
Yet Bhoothnath is different because it seems to be pitched more at children with about two-thirds of the film dedicated to light-weight, cartoon-like scenarios that had me wondering if I’d come to the wrong film. It felt “wrong” in the sense that I was an adult trying to assess whether kids would like what was on offer. The ending however, confirmed that this was indeed a B. R. Film, delivering a powerful universal message economically and effectively and confirming that debutante director Vivek Sharma does know his craft. Sharma, who has worked in post-production and as an associate director for the last 10 years, also wrote the screenplay for this film wherein lies the problem.
A good family film engages adults and children equally from the beginning. Children read it at their level which - in our technological age, can be quite sophisticated. Adults find either resonances of their own childhood, or a level of humour or pathos that children don’t get but which has nevertheless been cleverly fused into the storyline. About two-thirds of Bhoothnath seems to be lacking in adult content and sophistication. Quite simply it deals with the growing relationship between a boy and a crusty but friendly ghost (Amitabh Bachchan) who haunts the child’s new home a rented mansion in Goa.
Aman Siddiqui pays the plucky and plausible young mischief-maker opposite Bachchan who has worked well with child actors in previous films such as Cheeni Kum (2007) and Ek Ajnabee (2005). The growth of trust between the two occupies the first half of the film which presents as a string of episodes that would probably entertain young children. As a child growing up in a Western culture, TV shows which revolved around the antics of cheeky, invisible ghosts were among my favourites. As an adult, I wonder whether children are still so innocent.
The idea of a benign spirit is not new to Bollywood cinema in that Chamatkar (1992) and Paheli (2005) are precedents. Yet unlike these two films, Bhoothnath is devoid of romance and unless one has a high tolerance for cartoon-like humour (in the style of Kyon! Ho Gaya Na - 2004), the first half of the film certainly feels padded and dreary. Rajpal Yadav has an inconsequential role as a down-and-out hobo type of character and Juhi Chalwa is warm and appealing as the boy’s mother but there is no real focus or tension to the screenplay except that which is contrived and expedient. A standard Bollywood cliché is used to round off the first half.
One of the problems with the screenplay is that the inner-world of both the child and the grandfatherly ghost are kept from viewers till the end. Aman’s school experiences are primary school versions of the madcap college scenes in Main Hoon Na (2004). This is reinforced by the fact that Satish Shah (also in Main Hoon Na) plays the silly principal who is obsessed with the edibles packed in students’ tiffin containers. It’s all too light-weight and superficial, trying a little too hard to be funny and on one occasion failing abysmally. Aman, accidentally throws ink at the principal. His mother is called into the office but proceeds to laugh uncontrollably at the sight of the school-head covered in ink stains. Firstly, the mischief itself is not so uproariously funny that it warrants extension. Secondly, having the mother laugh (rather stupidly) at her sons misdemeanours does nothing to develop her character and in fact, creates inconsistency.
Most of the songs do little to enhance characterisation because Banku Bhaiyaa, Mere Buddy and Hum Hain Aandhi are all about attitude and playground cool. What are Aman’s emotional needs? We have no way of knowing. It seems common practice in many recent Bollywood films to suggest that a character’s preference for material goods or edibles such as ice-cream or chocolate is somehow a revelation about his/her character. A film can surely be light and humorous without completely forgoing depth.
Post-intermission the ghost assumes a parenting role, imparting values such as fair-play and forgiveness. He becomes a substitute for Aman’s “away-on-business” father (Shah Rukh Khan). Of course there isn’t any sense that the child is sorely in need of a mentor so the vignettes that show Aman learning these values are entirely forgettable.
The more impressive scenes only kick in towards the end. In true B.R. Chopra form, Aman and a buddy perform a play about the bhoot at a school concert. This triggers a sequence of events that changes the tone, style and impact of the film. The ghost’s back-story is presented in flashback with strong resonances of Baghban and an added layer of meaning. According to Sharma, the impasse occasioned by inter-generational conflict needs to be reassessed in the light of forgiveness. The segue into the song Samay Ka Pahiya was beautifully done and the song itself was well picturized, affirming the values that B. R. Films so lovingly endorse.
In reality Bhoothnath is two rather mismatched films in one. It’s a light film for young children with a much weightier adult oriented ending. Some younger children may find some of the later scenes distressing but they covey a clear message to more sophisticated youngsters and adults.