Gurmmeet Singh's Phone Bhoot starts with a jump scare, but that's no indication of the horrors to come. Like how the film is a microwaving of the rotting corpse of Ghostbusters, down to the jumpsuits. Or how Katrina Kaif’s Hindi is still a punchline. Or how Siddhant Chaturvedi gets repeatedly slammed in the junk. Or how the big celebrity cameo is the Fukrey gang, minus Ali Fazal, presumably recovering from his teeth-gnashing in the Poirot film. I guess we should be thankful it wasn’t the Bangistan boys.
Horror nerds Major (Chaturvedi) and Gullu (Ishaan Khatter) are roommates, slackers who host horror-themed parties and don’t seem to do much else. They’re living proof that a Tamilian and a Punjabi can find common ground in schlocky silliness, even if one drinks lassi (in a beer mug) and the other filter coffee (in a tea glass). At one of their monster mashes, they accidently get electrocuted. When they come to, the place is buzzing with the party-going dead, including one particularly alluring ghost, Ragini (Kaif).
Ragini charms her way into their lives, a simple enough task given Gullu is a virgin desperate to please and Major a cartoon wolf with eyeballs popping out and jaw bouncing off the floor. The two have just opened a ‘phone bhoot’ helpline—who you gonna call when the Reitman estate sues you?—and Ragini argues that it would help to have an actual bhoot on the team. Every single case they're called in for just happens to be a hard-luck story, so they end up not just tackling demonic possessions but also helping free trapped souls.
An hour in, my soul needed freeing too, stuck as I was in a purgatory of meta-references no one cares about. Kaif recreates her famous Slice advertisement. There’s a Vicky Kaushal joke. Major’s real name—I don’t think I could have misheard this—is Sherdil Shergill; if that's not enough Gully Boy for you, someone also says ‘bhot hard’. Khatter is called a “suitable bhai”. Jackie Shroff, as the villainous Atmaram, plays the flute like he did in Hero.
Horror-comedy is not a distinguished genre in Hindi cinema; when the significant recent benchmark is Anees Baazmee and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, the bar is pretty low. Writers Ravi Shankaran and Jasvinder Singh Bath manage a few good lines, like the helpline option you can press for “other regional monsters” if you don’t have a bhoot or chudail problem, or Gullu announcing “mehnat montage” before they go into a song. The film is constantly winking at the audience—basic gags like a voice on the soundtrack saying ‘evil laughter’ instead of actually laughing.
If there weren’t nine failed jokes to every half-successful one, perhaps Phone Bhoot might have gotten by on its amiability. Gullu and Major do seem like genuine horror geeks; their room has everything from a Raka statue to a poster of The Shining. Khatter offers further evidence of being a performer who’d shine if he could just land an above-average production (even A Suitable Boy, you ask? Especially A Suitable Boy). It was a good idea in theory to pair him and Chaturvedi, who, on the evidence of this and Bunty Aur Babli 2, works somewhat too hard to sell a gag. Kaif can’t sell jokes either, but at least she keeps disappearing from the film.
Stree might have kicked off the ongoing cycle of horror-comedies, but Phone Bhoot is best compared to Go Goa Gone. That 2013 Raj & DK film had a similar smart-aleck tone, though with immeasurably better writing and a realistic approach to gore that every Hindi horror-comedy since has lacked. Gurmmeet Singh’s film frays alarmingly after the one-hour mark; there’s no reason for Sheeba Chadha’s chudail to be there, and Ragini’s backstory is the laziest tragedy plotting you could imagine. The last scene, rather touchingly, offers the possibility of a sequel. Drive a stake through its heart.