Three things are guaranteed in the life of an Indian cinephile: death, taxes, and a ‘patriotic’ film during Independence Day week – the first two may be postponed, if not avoided, but the third is unavoidable. Bell Bottom, starring Akshay Kumar, is a similar foregone conclusion – it’s his sixth such release in the previous six years. It, too, is “inspired by actual events,” as are Shershaah and Bhuj. It, too, excavates the last decade and praises a national security agency: the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).
The spy thriller, set in 1984, revolves around the hijacking of an Indian plane carrying 210 passengers. Over the last few years, improved relations between India and Pakistan and a series of hijackings of Indian flights have resulted in the release of many terrorists, according to R&AW chief N.F. Suntook’s (Adil Hussain’s) voiceover, due to “negotiations” — the film’s slur, obsession, and mantra. The Indian ministers are eager to reach an agreement this time, but R&AW is adamant that it will not since it has a new ace in the pack: analyst Anshul Malhotra (Kumar), code-named “Bell Bottom” — someone with a personal stake in the mission.
The film begins with the 1984 hijacking and then cuts to a five-year flashback in Delhi, where we meet Anshul’s wife Radhika (Vaani Kapoor) and mother Raavi (Dolly Ahluwalia). I told myself that these were not good indicators, that one of them will die shortly. We learn more about the hero in this (overlong) part, which relieves the extreme intensity of the opening few minutes: He is a chess player at the national level, a vocalist, a French instructor, and an IAS aspirant.
Soon after, we hear a song that appears to be about a wedding but quickly changes into a clichéd love ballad. It, of course, does not fit at all. We subsequently learn that Raavi must go to London and Radhika must travel to Srinagar (it’s coming; it’s coming). Intermittent images of suspicious individuals smiling at the airport (yes, they are terrorists – the voice in my brain wouldn’t stop talking). Back aboard the plane, their watches begin to beep at the exact moment, and the aircraft has been hijacked.
Anshul’s mother has died, which is a sad (but quite anticipated) narrative twist. (His wife isn’t — this isn’t an Ajay Devgn movie.) The R&AW guys then kidnap him and force him to become an agent. There’s no reason why he’s qualified for the position, and another connected surprise near the conclusion doesn’t add together either. Following the formal training, Bell Bottom cuts to London in 1983, when R&AW agents attempt to arrest the 1979 hijackers.
The film’s director, Ranjit Tewari, doesn’t want to waste time on frivolities like convincing narrative transitions and simmering tension, so he has Anshul stumble across a perpetrator: so far, so predictable.
Bell Bottom, like other dramas in the category, enjoys repetition. The film often reminds us that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is attempting to undermine the country’s security, that Pakistan is betraying India through “dosti ka dikhawa,” and that the age of “negotiations” is gone. At the character level, there is also repetition. In a flashback to 1979, the Indian cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Morarji Desai become pitiful softies, intent on – what else – “negotiations,” allowing General Zia-ul-Haq undue freedom.
All of these implications are highly Uri-like: India must find courage. Kumar even uses a phrase from an election campaign: “Abki baar, unki haar.” And, while the film does not disparage the then-prime leader, Indira Gandhi, it is astute enough to take sides. When the ISI is outmaneuvered later in the movie, its leader remarks, “Shaatir woh nahin, R&AW hai” (Gandhi isn’t clever; R&AW is).
Before I go any further, I need to set the stage for the rest of the review. My professional film critic career has coincided with the 2014 Modi sarkar (and the rise of nationalist films). I’ve raged and raved, been startled and horrified, but I must confess: the Bollywood nationalists (particularly Tanhaji and Bhuj) have finally broken me – something I realized while seeing Bell Bottom.
So many nationalist movies have been published in the previous seven years – putting the “pro” in “propaganda” – that the current prevailing sentiment is tiredness and apathy rather than outrage or irritation. Is the plot predictable? Bring it on (as long as it’s not too loud). Traditional nationalism? It’s not a huge deal (at least it isn’t Islamophobic).
Bell Bottom wasn’t shrill or disgusting about its Desh bhakti. I felt relieved. When it wasn’t drowning in its bloodlust – the RA&W agents don’t murder hijackers – I wanted to yell, “Progressive, sir, very progressive!” I tried to get up and cheer Kumar when he stated, “I don’t blame the Pakistani population, but there are some sections…” Maybe it’s my cynicism, perhaps it’s my age, maybe it’s (cinematic) Stockholm Syndrome, or perhaps it’s all of the above, but I’m humbled and defeated.
So, in the second half, Bell Bottom wasn’t all that awful. The film does not follow the formula of an indestructible patriot, the nation’s intrinsic grandeur, or Pakistan’s never-ending vileness – and while it does include some of these elements, the clamor is not deafening. We even have a few plot twists: the RA&W operatives face various barriers; specific plans fail to materialize; and the ultimate triumph, while convenient, appears to be earned. Please make no mistake. It is still poor, but I did find a silver lining: Bell Bottom is a Bhuj who attended a grooming school.