Phone Bhoot is almost a very good movie. It has a distinct style and point of view, and Ishaan Khattar gives a hypnotic performance. But it badly needs editing.
It’s not just that Phone Bhoot is too long (though it is, especially for a comedy) or that scenes are too slow (though they are). It’s that all the cruft in the film makes the jokes less funny than if they were quick hits. There’s a reason why the Hamlet quote “Brevity is the soul of wit” endures over the centuries.
For example, take how the film’s main characters acquire their superpowers. Friends Major (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Gullu (Khattar) are two horror-obsessed slackers. While fixing the glowing eyes of their Frankenstein-like monster statue named Raaka, our heroes are electrocuted. Instead of just convulsing for a few seconds then dropping, director Gurmmeet Singh has the camera repeatedly cut between Major, Gullu, and Raaka as the humans convulse for what feels like forever. The prolonged electrocution sequence has been a tired Bollywood comedy trope for a long time.
When the guys wake up, they find that they can see ghosts. Specifically, they can see Ragini (Katrina Kaif), a beautiful spectre who makes them a proposition. She will help them start an exorcism business, thereby earning enough to pay back the money that the guys owe their fathers. In exchange, they have to help her with a favor, no questions asked.
An interesting theme that comes up as the trio’s exorcism business takes off is the financial ramifications of death. The ghost of a young woman haunts the family of the man who killed her in a hit-and-run not just because of the unfairness of her life being cut short. It’s also because the woman was the breadwinner for her aging parents, who now live in poverty. Other ghosts have similar stories. It’s a thoughtful acknowledgement that justice may be best served in forms other than jail time or equivalent physical punishment.
Another cool thing about Major and Gullu is that they are obsessed expressly with Indian horror movies. There are very few references to Hollywood horror films in the movie, and all of the posters and props in their apartment are from older Bollywood flicks. Ragini’s name obviously comes from the Ragini MMS series, and I’m sure there are tons of other references for those with a deeper knowledge of spooky Hindi classics than I have.
Unfortunately, as with the electrocution sequence, the movie draws too much from outdated comedy and storytelling styles. Jokes last so long that they stop being funny. The story moves too slowly, especially since there isn’t really a b-plot. There’s plenty of room in the narrative for characters like the Major’s and Gullu’s dads to reappear to check on their unconventional sons’ progress, or for there to be more to the guys’ thin association with a witch whose name translates in the English subtitles as Wicky Witch (Sheeba Chaddha).
Likewise, it would’ve been better to have the guys encounter the movie’s villain Aatmaram Shastrashakti (Jackie Shroff) earlier in the story, rather than keep the evil sorcerer sequestered in the underground lair he’s leasing from Big Trouble in Little China‘s David Lo Pan.
Another disappointment is that the songs and choreography are forgettable. None of the numbers will rank among Kaif’s greatest hits, despite pairing her with an excellent dancer like Khattar. (Chartuvedi holds his own on the dance floor, too.)
Kaif’s performance is solid as the stand-in for the audience, rolling her eyes at the two dopes she’s forced to rely on for help. Chaturvedi’s mugging as Major is a bit much at times but mostly fits with his character’s personality. Khattar is the real standout, totally immersing himself in every scene, no matter how silly, and reacting authentically.
Were it 30 minutes shorter, Phone Bhoot would be a real winner.
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