Bhoot Police, directed by Pawan Kripalani, is a story of two brothers. Their father was a renowned occultist, Ullat Baba (Saurabh Sachdeva), who died when the boys were small. As adults, they’ve carried forward the family legacy, running an exorcism venture named Ullat Baba and Sons, A to Z Totka Centre. The younger brother, Chiraunji (Arjun Kapoor), is sincere and ambitious, hoping to do some impressive paranormal investigation. But the elder one, Vibhooti (Saif Ali Khan), is cunning and deceitful, who doesn’t believe in ghosts. He is suspicious of his father’s reputation, too. This yin-yang nature of the brothers complements this similarly bi-polar movie, a horror comedy.
It’s not consistently hilarious at the start, or at any point, but its pleasant silliness – especially in political digs – keeps the story afloat. One of the mantras chanted by the brothers during an early spiritual offering is “Arogya Setuam”. In the same scene, Vibhooti tells the father of a girl possessed by a ghost that only a PhD degree can save her. Why? Because, well, “Beti padhao, beti bachao”. When a villager is relieving himself in the toilet, his wife, keeping a guard outside for the fear of a ghost attack, asks him, referring to his bowel movements, “How’s the josh?” Later, explaining their financial crunch, Vibhooti says, “Our GDP is anyway down.” This consistent commitment towards a certain kind of humour made me wonder whether the brothers represented ‘India’ – poor hustlers, hungry to be successful, not shy of a scam or two. Bhoot Police of course didn’t go so far, but it’s quite evident that the comedy dominates the horror in this film to a large extent and that it’s a self-aware piece that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
When the brothers are at a ghost carnival, a young woman, Maya (Yami Gautam), requests them to solve a 27-year-old case left unfinished by their father. Her tea estate, near Dharamshala, has been haunted by a ghost named Kichkandi. And just like that, they’re off with her in their van. Like this convenient plot turn, Vibhooti and Chiraunji, who live in what looks like Rajasthan, have no convincing reason to talk in a strange Bihari accent. Khan’s diction is particularly laboured. He doesn’t sound – or sometimes look – the part: love is “lau”, emotion is “emosan”, fraud is “phraud”, the same old Bollywood Bhojpuri.
The rest of the film is set in that tea estate, where the brothers meet Maya’s sister, Kanika (Jacqueline Fernandez), the property manager, Hari (Amit Mistry), and the villagers. Unlike Maya, Kanika is rude to Vibhooti and Chiraunji, and wants to sell the estate and move to London. Devoid of jokes for some time in the middle, Bhoot Police goes through a period of indifferent filmmaking. For instance, the initial plot twist – the identity of the ghost – is very easy to spot (and I’m not even good at such things).
It’s exacerbated by strange, misplaced references that make you think about the brothers’ identities. Vibhooti is reading Playboy in one scene; in another, he says, “photobombing”. Because of such inconsistent writing, it’s difficult to get a real sense of them. Towards the two-third mark, after the predictable ‘twist’ is revealed, the film leaves you with a vague feeling: that it is better than middling but less than good. And that is so because it is not funny enough, and the limited humour undercuts the horror.
But then something happens that changes the film: a little girl, present in few short scenes before, becomes central to the story. She is mute, her name is Titliya, and Vibhooti sees her randomly and strikes conversations with her. It’s only when he starts figuring out the missing pieces, and begins believing in ghosts, that this movie takes an unexpected poignant turn. The comedy takes a backseat, though a few sporadic jokes do induce chuckles, and Bhoot Police becomes a story of unfulfilled promises: from sons to their father, from a mother to her daughter. The horror, too, rises in proportion (even though the film is never really scary – and again, it doesn’t take a lot to spook me).
The film doesn’t adopt sophisticated storytelling tools at crucial times – we get the main backstory in an expositional heap, instead of a slow and intriguing unravel – but Kripalani’s commitment towards finding a new film within a stale set-up makes Bhoot Police fascinating and surprising. It’s never easy to balance tone in a genre like this – where, say, the disturbing story of a ravaged childhood sits close to the funny fantasy of a local cop’s revenge. Decades ago, Ullat Baba made Inspector Chedilal (Javed Jaffrey) marry a goat. He now wants to kill his sons to avenge his loss. Even if the individual elements, such as horror and comedy, don’t always fire, the film is never jarring. It is in fact a pleasant change from the loud and bullying brand of mainstream Hindi cinema that has increasingly become the norm these days.
Khan and Kapoor make an unlikely pair, and they complement each other’s contrasting energies. But the actresses, or the reliable Mistry, don’t have much to do. Khan is at ease throughout the film, cracking some terrific jokes with an infectious self-aware glee, but he tries hard, a bit too hard, to be funny in the climax, diluting the film’s new sense of purpose. Yet these distractions are not big enough to taint the ‘real climax’: one that is carefully hidden, sincere, and heartfelt. In a film about ghosts and ghostbusters, the show stealer turns out to be a little girl – and she does so without a line of dialogue.