The last of the ‘silly Indian films’, at least for now.
I watched Bhoot Bungla for the first time as a child, when it was aired on Doordarshan. I remembered very little of it, except that RD Burman struck me as very funny (even funnier than Mehmood, who—back then—I had still not begun to think of as irritating). And that my mother, sitting beside me and watching Tanuja lip-sync to O mere pyaar aaja, remarked that she (Mummy) used to sing this song as a lullaby for my sister when she was a baby.
Then, when I reviewed Adhey Kangal some time back, a few blog readers observed that the plot was pretty similar to that of Bhoot Bungla.
Time, I decided, for a rewatch.
As the credits roll, an unidentified man screams “Lakshmi!” and having pulled a bloodied dagger out of his chest, proceeds to keel over, dead. A woman (Minoo Mumtaz), presumably Lakshmi, goes running out of the house, clutching a toddler to her, looking panicked.
Fifty years later, the story centres round this same house, now inhabited by a trio of brothers. The eldest (Moni Chatterjee) is simply called Bade Bhaiya. The second (Nazir Hussain) is Shyamlal ‘Shyamu’, and the youngest (Nana Palsikar), Ramlal ‘Ramu’, is the madman of the family. Pretty much everybody in the family, from his brothers to the servants Dhamu (Asit Sen) and the gardener (?), who’s only referred to as Maali, think Ramu is completely batty. The cook Lakhiya (?) is the only one who insists Ramu is sane, but from the way Ramu suspects her of wanting to poison him, it seems unlikely.
The family doctor (Harindranath Chattopadhyay) is non-committal about Ramu’s condition; in any case, he comes by mostly to check on Shyamu’s blood sugar levels and to urge him to take care of his diet.
Bade Bhaiya receives news that, the following day, his daughter Rekha (Tanuja) is returning from her studies abroad. He asks Shyamu to accompany him to the airport to receive Rekha, but Shyamu says he has some important work to attend to at office. Bade Bhaiya should get to the airport on his own; Shyamu will come directly to the airport from his office.
Ramu tries to tag along in Bade Bhaiya’s car the next day, but Bade Bhaiya has Maali and Dhamu haul him out. Bade Bhaiya drives off on his own—and the car explodes midway through the drive, killing Bade Bhaiya instantly.
Shyamu therefore is the only one to receive Rekha when she gets off her plane; they wonder what’s happened to her father, and are shocked when they finally get home to discover what’s happened. The cops come by, and the inspector (Jagdish Raj, no surprises there) asks Shyamu if he suspects anyone. To no avail.
Even before the inspector can root up any clues, another death occurs. Ramu is found hanging from the ceiling in his room (after a night when a mysterious figure, only its pajama-swathed ankles and feet visible in the frame, wanders through the house, trailing a long, frayed rope: almost everybody hears or sees it, and gets the jitters, but does not think to later wonder who or what that was). The cops come, and later, the inspector tells Shyamu and Rekha that the post-mortem report indicates that Ramu was murdered, dead before he was hung up. It wasn’t suicide.
Shyamu now points to a family portrait hanging nearby. That’s his chacha, he says; Chacha was murdered in this house fifty years ago, and his wife and child disappeared from the house shortly after. Nobody knows yet what happened, who killed the man and where his family went. Murder has come back to this house, Shyamu says morosely.
At the inspector’s suggestion, Shyamu, Rekha, Dhamu and Lakhiya shift to their house in town. Here, Shyamu decides he will hire a private detective, to do some discreet investigation into the deaths of his brothers, even while the police do their own investigations. He has also informed Rekha’s friends about her being back in town, and about the tragedy that’s struck. These girls, therefore, turn up and take Rekha off to have some fun…
… which involves Rekha singing at a Beach Club competition (where the compere is a young and debonair Ameen Sayani).
And where she meets Mohan (Mehmood), the leader of a local youth club. Rekha doesn’t like Mohan’s style of singing, and ends up even more sore because he and his band prove more popular than her.
Through his friends (one of whom is played by Mohan Choti, another by Polson), Mohan sends Rekha the trophy he won at the competition. In a letter, he writes that it is rightfully hers; she sang better—it was just that the audience prefers rubbish songs. Rekha’s friends, when they hear about this at a picnic, tease her about a blossoming romance, but the conversation is abruptly stopped by a downpour.
The girls end up sheltering at Rekha’s family bungalow, which is nearby. Here, the girls (except Rekha, of course) are alarmed by the sight of Maali, and later when they discover that the electricity’s gone.
Odd things happen: they find an ashtray full of cigarette butts, with a man’s handkerchief nearby (both of which Maali insists are to be traced to Rekha’s father and uncle, whose ghosts patrol this room). Creepy howls break out outside the house (which Rekha, by now looking a bit worried herself, tells her freaking-out friends, are nothing but foxes).
Then, the flame of the lantern Maali brings them inexplicably dwindles, even though the lantern is full of oil, until it finally goes out.
The girls discover that the door to the room has just as inexplicably been locked from the outside; and, as they pound at it and get almost hysterical, it magically opens. Rekha, staring out with her friends gibbering at the back, sees smoke swirling about. Out of the haze comes a menacing male voice, telling Rekha that her father and her uncle were murdered; she is next in line.
And this isn’t all. Soon enough, Rekha starts receiving phone calls at home. Each time, there’s that voice again, telling her she’s going to be murdered. Soon.
Then one day, waiting at the bus stop (where she happens to see Mohan in the bus line), Rekha gets pushed by some unseen person, right into the path of the oncoming bus. Fortunately, the bus driver brakes just in time and escapes. The other people at the bus stop help her up and Mohan hires a taxi to take Rekha home. When Rekha tells him the story—the threats, the ominous happenings—Mohan offers that he, along with the other members of the Youth Club, since they’re all committed to helping people—will investigate the matter. Rekha accepts gratefully.
What is happening? Who is trying to kill Rekha?
Bhoot Bungla is really the quintessential ‘silly Indian film’. This one is really, unashamedly silly. It pretends briefly to be a horror film, or at least suspenseful; but that pretence is soon left behind, and the film plunges into a mess of utter slapstick. Sad, because the core story—what lies at the bottom of all the murders in this ‘haunted’ house—isn’t actually bad. I can imagine a director like, say, Asit Sen (who directed the excellent Apradhi Kaun), or even Biren Nag (director of Bees Saal Baad) doing something pretty interesting with this story. Mehmood (who directed Bhoot Bungla, besides starring in it), however succumbs to his need for bunging in comedy everywhere, and takes it a little too over the top.
What I liked about this film:
The music, by RD Burman (to lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri). In particular, the two back-to-back songs, O mere pyaar aaja and Aao twist karein. Some of the other songs are pleasant too, but these two stand out.
And, while we’re on Pancham: his acting in the film. It’s not as if RD Burman is a superb actor, but in that almost half-hour long sequence with Mehmood in the eponymous haunted house is worth watching just for Pancham. There’s something about his face, which—combined with the situations, his dialogues and his expressions—made me grin through it (even though, after a while, the ‘comedy’ began to pall).
What I didn’t like:
The way the ‘comedy’ takes over for almost an hour or so in the middle of the film. Had Bhoot Bungla been, from the beginning, light-hearted or funny in the way of macabre, black humour (as in Arsenic and Old Lace) I wouldn’t have minded; the problem was that this film took itself fairly seriously till a point, and then, where Mehmood and his Youth Club gang take over, it becomes completely farcical and idiotic.
Bhoot Bungla suffers from ‘the curse of the second half’ in other ways too. The story gets derailed in other ways: for instance, everybody (including, quite unforgivably, the police) seems to forget that there have been murders, and even more frightening, that Rekha has been consistently getting death threats. They (not the police, thank heavens) sing and dance and get up to all sorts of antics; the murders are set aside and the bhoot bungla becomes nothing more than a setting for several really silly ‘ghostly’ scenes.
Then, the silly insistence on trying to add suspense to the film by way of red herrings, spooky happenings, and so on—in most of which the film goes overboard. For instance:
Red herrings need to be maintained, or at least for long enough for them to register in a substantial way. A very brief scene in which Lakhiya tells a man (back to camera, so we can’t see the face of the man) to go quickly, so that he can’t be seen: this was the only such scene, so I’d forgotten about it by the time the identity of the ‘mysterious man’ was revealed. A damp squib. Compare this to KN Singh’s role in Teesri Manzil, an excellent example of building up a red herring.
Then, red herrings need to be believable, and they shouldn’t be there for the sake of it. Shyamu, through most of the film, is a fairly avuncular character, but right near the end, he suddenly and inexplicably goes completely off the rails. He drags Rekha around, hits her, shouts at her, hits Maali badly enough to draw blood—and why? For no rhyme or reason; just Mehmood trying to make us suspect that this man is the villain.
End of spoilers.
Also irritating (and another futile attempt to add to the suspense) are the repeated instances when Mohan, coming to Rekha’s rescue, slinks around quietly, sneaks up on her, clamps a hand over her mouth, etc—and nearly frightens the life out of the poor woman, Why? You know your girlfriend has become a nervous wreck because of this mysterious threatening caller; why would you then, for no good reason, not announce yourself in some way?
This could have been so much better in the hands of a good director.