A sequel has been planned to Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India, featuring Anil Kapoor’s invisible man, who battles on behalf of the great Indian unwashed, but its producers need not bother. Nitesh Tiwari’s Bhoothnath Returns, in which Amitabh Bachchan’s ghost Kailash Nath returns to earth for unfinished business, is a tribute to, and an update of, the 1987 movie.

The follow-up to 2008’s Bhoothnath takes full advantage of the anti-corruption sentiment that has infected the current political climate. Although the Aam Aadmi Party isn’t mentioned in Bhoothnath Returns, its ghost hovers over the revolutionary zeal that drives the characters, while the Election Commission of India will fully approve of the frequent exhortations to viewers to exercise their vote through sequences that have the flavour of public service advertisements.

Tiwari might have made his debut by co-writing and co-directing the children’s movie Chillar Party, but the sequel to Bhoothnath, in which Kailash Nath tries to scare away a family that has moved into his house, is for grown-ups. Like Chillar Party, this film too wraps its social concerns in humour.

Kailash Nath is in heaven, which is wittily conceptualized as a European rural paradise, where he gets jeered at for his inability to scare children. Sent back to earth to restore his image, he meets Akroot (Parth Bhalerao), a streetwise urchin from Dharavi who signals the movie’s shift towards serious material when he takes the ghost to his Mumbai slum, wonderfully designed to resemble the real thing by Wasiq Khan.

Far more frightening than ghosts is the squalor surrounding Akroot, which Bhoothnath is persuaded to fix by standing for a forthcoming election against the odious politician Bhau (a loud and hammy Boman Irani).

So what if Kailash Nath is not alive? The rules don’t say anything about debarring a ghost from contesting.

From here on, it’s a roller-coaster ride of ups balanced evenly with the downs. The pointed and sharp dialogue provides several chuckle-worthy moments at the foibles of the Indian ruling class and the bureaucracy. Kailash Nath’s transformation from ghost to candidate provides Tiwari with several opportunities to draw attention to the vast homeless and hungry multitudes that continue to crowd the margins of the so-called “India Story".
It’s heart-warming to see a movie that speaks up for the rights of the underprivileged rather than the middle class and never strays beyond its slum setting, but it’s also tiresome to watch the film-maker labour the point. Anik Dutta’s Bengali supernatural comedy Bhooter Bhabishyat kept its ambitions in check while selling the crackerjack idea about a haunted mansion as a metaphor for a fast-changing Kolkata, but the goal of Bhoothnath Returns is nothing short of total revolution through the ballot box.

A film that demands suspension of disbelief works far too hard to explain why Kailash Nath needs to contest an election to improve the lives of Dharavi’s hard-working denizens when all he needed was a wave of his hand to solve their water, sanitation and employment problems.

Bhalerao’s Akroot is the movie’s prime mover and brightest spark, egging on Kailash Nath to go through the motions, but an interesting minor dialogue with the Bachchan mythology is also at work here. Bachchan’s Angry Young Man persona from the 1970s ran in the opposite direction from social acceptance, but he is in a conciliatory mode here. His anger was blunted many years ago, his disengagement swapped for integration, and he now asserts himself through folded hands rather than clenched fists.

Several movies in recent years have slavishly paid homage to Bachchan’s anti-establishment 1970s image (one devotee, Anurag Kashyap, pops up in a cameo), but Bhoothnath Returns channels the Bachchan we are more familiar with. He is no longer a vigilante but a statesman. He wants to improve the establishment rather than tear it down. And he wants your vote.

Bhoothnath Returns released in theatres on Friday.

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