BellBottom Movie Review: A good-looking drag
The film, starring Akshay Kumar as a spy in the 1980s, is visually competent but boring
Versatility ranks low in the list of Indian traits. Our heroes are usually good at one or two things, winning a medal or championing a cause, and that’s mostly fine. Strange, then, for BellBottom to spend precious minutes introducing its multi-hyphenate hero. Anshul (Akshay Kumar) is a star even before he joins the Research and Analysis Wing. He’s a national-level chess player prepping for the UPSC exams. He teaches German, French and, as though words aren’t enough, music and singing. He’s a loving husband and a dutiful son. He performs at a wedding function, wowing everyone. On the job, Anshul is an action hero with wit to spare. I was surprised he took ‘Bell Bottom’ as his undercover name. ‘Michelangelo’ would be a better fit.
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Lara Dutta, Adil Hussain, Vaani Kapoor, Huma Qureshi, Zain Khan Durrani
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Director: Ranjit M Tiwari
In 1984, an Indian aeroplane carrying 210 passengers is hijacked and flown to Lahore. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (an indistinguishable Lara Dutta) is informed that the hijackers belong to the ‘Azaadi Dal’ of Punjab. Everyone appears to concur, all except Anshul, who cries foul. ‘ISI’, he insists, is the main culprit. The argument drags on, concerns are raised, but Anshul remains insistent, telling his higher-ups that they are partly right, partly wrong.
This appeal to ambiguity is a joy in patriotism season. Yet, the viewer is also aware that Anshul has some serious skin in the game. His mother, lovingly played by Dolly Ahluwalia, was kidnapped on a 1979 plane and died in transit. India’s willingness to negotiate with the hijackers exacted one victim: Anshul’s mom. Emphasizing personal tragedy in advance of an oncoming mission is a very Uri thing to do. Like Vicky Kaushal’s character in that film, Anshul is driven by revenge, which he wraps up in a show of national duty.
The trouble is, with the stakes thus enlarged, the pace begins to drag. Having set the table, director Ranjit M Tiwari keeps re-introducing his guests. The hero is Anshul, not his teammates or boss (Adil Hussain). The villain, always, is Pakistan: there’s a silly scene with a hijacker telling one of the passengers that his biscuits are ‘made in Pakistan’. An intriguing passage in London is interrupted with Anshul lecturing about India and Pakistan. The blame-shifting continues after the end, a title card informing that ‘the hijackers were actually ISI covert agents.’
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In contrast, India’s present-day allies are celebrated throughout the film. After the Lahore stopover, the plane is landed in Dubai. The UAE officials are collaborative and opposed to violence. They play along with Anshul’s plan to infiltrate the site and rescue the hostages. He’s got backup—a team of Indian soldiers sailing in from an Israeli detail. Israel is also alluded to in two previous scenes. In one, an ‘Azaadi Dal’ leader threatens to do to India what 'the PLO has been doing to Israel.’ And Anshul’s suggestion for a covert operation is said to have precedence in the Mossad, the intelligence wing of Israel.
BellBottom was the first Hindi film to be shot in the pandemic; given the limitations, it’s an adept production. The multiple locations are juggled smartly and coherently. Akshay’s wardrobe is impressive without stretching his means as a government official (It’s not The Family Man, though, where Manoj Bajpayee wears his shirts untucked). In an early training montage, we see Anshul excelling at indoor tests. Asked to identify the book Sharmila Tagore is holding in Mere Sapno Ki Rani from Aradhana (1969), he rightly names the author as Alistair MacLean. So he's a film journalist too!
Akshay’s filmography doesn’t gain or lose from BellBottom. He’s played a better spy in Baby, a better civilian in Airlift. Who I do feel for is Huma Qureshi, handed an even slighter role than her Hollywood debut in Army of The Dead. The only ‘performance’ in this film is by Abhijit Lahiri, as the judicious minister Khan. Told to back off, his character keeps his cool. “There are no doubles in chess,” Anshul tells him confidently. He’s partly right, partly wrong.