Saif Ali Khan said something in a recent interview that caught my eye. The horror-comedy genre, he noted, “is in danger of getting overexposed”. It’s the clearest hint of pre-release jitters any Indian actor has dropped recently. Bollywood actors love jumping on a bandwagon, not jumping out of it. Saif, though, is different. His sense of audience interest—and audience fatigue—is almost always accurate. Bhoot Police, his latest, only proves him right.
Pavan Kripalani’s film is draggy, samey genre fair. It’s a horror-comedy by algorithm: a sceptical lead who freaks out and has a change of heart? Check. A plot concerning folklore? Check. Laughs wrung not exactly from what’s unfolding on screen but winking one-liners? You bet. Bhoot Police’s only novelty is in its ambition to set up a Ghostbusters-style universe, a modern take on Vikraal Aur Gabraal without the crossbow and distracting height difference. But who wants a franchise when the first film isn’t all that great, and already feels like a sequel?
The film opens with Vibhooti (Saif) and Chiraunji (Arjun Kapoor), a pair of itinerant tantriks and brothers, touring the countryside. Pulling up in a gypsy van—Scooby-Doo tribute #1—they confront a girl seemingly possessed by a ghost. Probed further, though, she crumbles, admitting she’s putting up an act so her parents don’t marry her off. “I want to study,” she pleads, prompting Vibhooti to stage a fake havan that ends with him saying, “Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao.”
It’s a funny start, especially with Vibhooti reciting chemical words as incantations. Nevertheless, the simpler Chiraunji believes in some of that stuff, while his brother is coldly fraudulent. Their dynamic is put to test when factory-owner Maya (Yami Gautam) invites them to her tea estate in the hills. There’s an evil spirit going around, spooking her workers. “Ghosts don’t exist,” Vibhooti repeats, in private, to his brother. Events prove otherwise.
The humour in Bhoot Police is of a patchy variant. Strong performers like Rajpal Yadav and Jamie Lever flit by without a laugh. Jaaved Jaaferi, as a cop chasing Vibhooti, is sped up to 2x in a sequence, a mammoth insult to the actor’s natural slapstick talents. The film is often competing with the Marvel brand of easy chuckles. In one scene, Saif and Arjun look dolefully at each other over the line, ‘Nepotism has ruined this country.’ In 2021, this feels more tired than funny. There’s also enough fun poked at the naive, trusting villagers (Amar Kaushik’s Stree worked around this problem by making the natives primary characters).
Even more than Jawaani Jaaneman (2019), Saif lets loose in this one. He’s mostly playing himself, always mixing the callous and carefree. “Thanks, Shahrukh!” he squeals, hearing a tinkling from a scarecrow. All the same, it’s wholly unlikely that a character like Vibhooti would be so steeped in pop culture, saying stuff like ‘I see dead people’ and moaning about Naagin reruns. Oddly, it’s his bland partner, sincerely played by Arjun, who’s a better act to follow. For once in his career, Arjun has underplayed to his advantage and deserves credit.
Jacqueline Fernandez riding in on a horse, pouting intermittently and dreaming about London is about as 90s as a film can get. The antiquity is reflected in Pavan’s filmmaking. The monster design is obsolete, and he seems to exhaust his bag of horror tricks rather soon. A sequence with Maya tumbling down the top floor is so unoriginal, it would provoke Vikram Bhatt. “Chance lo,” Vibhuti advises his brother. “Take a chance.” Try telling that to Bhoot Police.
Film: Bhoot Police
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Arjun Kapoor, Yami Gautam, Jacqueline Fernandez, Jaaved Jaaferi
Director: Pavan Kripalani
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar