Single-name director Priyadarshan is a Bollywood comedy machine, churning out as many as five films a year since the mid-eighties. Known for sumptuous visuals, John Carpenter-like camera work, and what Indian critics call "simple humor," he's a crowd-pleaser despite the occasional out-and-out flop. But he's clearly doing okay: This dramedy-thriller, his first film to play English-language theaters in the United States, stars Akshay Kumar.
Akshay Who-mar? No sweat for not knowing he's one of Bollywood's biggest stars, thanks to the "Khiladi" ("Player") action-movie series and numerous romantic dramas and comedies (prompting one Indian journalist to describe him as a combination of Jackie Chan and Jerry Lewis). But until now, not one of the 78 films he's made since his 1991 debut have played in the U.S. commercially.
Unfortunately, the actor’s charms don't much translate in Bhool Bhulaiyaa. In this Hindi-language version of the1993 Malayalam-language Indian movie Manichitrathazhu (The Ornate Lock), Kumar plays Dr. Aditya Shrivastav, an eccentric Indian émigré psychiatrist or psychologist (the movie doesn't make it clear) who flies in from America to help a newlywed friend. That would be the polished and Americanized Siddharth Chaturvedi (Shiney Ahuja), who has returned to his provincial village as part of a dam-building team (though whether he's an architect, developer or financial guy also remains unclear). But when Siddharth and bride Avni (Vidya Balan) try to move into his family's ancestral mansion, the relatives get up in arms. Don't these modern kids know that the murderous ghost of court dancer Manjulika, whose lover was slain by jealous king Shashidar, haunts the place?
The couple scoff, of course, but soon objects begin to fall and break mysteriously. Alarmed, Siddharth's uncles—patriarch Badrinarayan Chaturvedi (Manoj Joshi) and comically scaredy-cat Batukshankar Upadhyay (Paresh Rawal)—as well as his aunt Janki Upadhyay (Rasika Joshi), cousin Nandini Upadhyay (Tareena Patel, billed here as Tarina), adopted cousin Radha Chaturvedi (Ameesha Patel), fellow scaredy-cat family friend Murari (Asrani) and others all move into the sprawling mansion to help. And then come the nasty attacks on those foolish enough to wander the hallways and rooms alone.
Suspicion falls to Radha, whose adopted status makes some wonder if there's insanity in her bloodline. Doc Aditya doesn't inspire much confidence, though; as someone reasonably asks, "Can such a fool ever be a doctor?" He does have his methods for this madness, nevertheless, and after the usual (albeit shorter-than-usual) musical numbers and a wedding, he delivers answers in a deft, Agatha Christie-style drawing-room scene. Actually, more like a Scooby-Doo drawing-room scene. And with the help of Wikipedia!
Some chucklesome broad comedy doesn't make up for even more bug-eyed mugging, and the English-language subtitles are inexcusably cut-rate. Leaving aside an important scene in which they simply don't appear, their translations range from awkward to incomprehensible.
On the plus side, the fractious family carries a universal familiarity, and the first musical number is stunning, with a score of purple- and red-clad chorus dancers aligned like geometric jewels on Escher-like steps. A romantic set-piece in silky slo-mo, replete with gauzy lens and fuzzy candlelight, re-imagines eighties’ music video, while a prosaic bus-and-bike-journey montage is saved by the irresistibly catchy song, "Allah Hafiz."
But it's two other deities that briefly got the film in trouble: The title track, which refers to the gods Krishna and Ram, gets reprised over the end-credits in a gangsta-rap version with half-naked chicks practically giving lap dances to a statue of Buddha. A religious foundation in India filed a lawsuit, unsuccessfully, to force the Censor Board of Film Certification to order the song and scene removed. Toto, I don't think we're in Mumbai anymore.