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 Bell Bottom 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. 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.
In 1984, an Indian airplane 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, except Anshul. ‘ISI’, he insists, is the main culprit. The argument drags on, 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, 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. Emphasising 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. The blame-shifting continues after the end, a title card informing that ‘the hijackers were actually ISI covert agents.’
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 play along with Anshul’s plan to rescue the hostages. He’s got backup — a team of Indian soldiers sailing in from an Israeli detail.
Bell Bottom 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. Akshay’s wardrobe is impressive without stretching his means as a government official. Akshay’s filmography doesn’t gain or lose from Bell Bottom. 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.
Cast:Akshay Kumar, Lara Dutta, Adil Hussain, Vaani Kapoor, Huma Qureshi, Zain Khan Durrani
Director:Ranjit M Tiwari
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video