Three things are certain in the life of an Indian cinephile: death, taxes and a ‘patriotic’ film during the Independence Day week — the first two may still be delayed, if not avoidable, but there’s no escaping the last. Bell Bottom, starring Akshay Kumar, is a similar inevitability – his fifth such release over the last six years. Like Shershaah and Bhuj, it is “inspired by true events”. Like them, it excavates a past decade and glorifies an agency safeguarding national security: Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).
Set in 1984, the spy thriller is centered on the hijack of an Indian aircraft carrying 210 passengers. Over the last few years, the improved relations between India and Pakistan and a series of hijacks of Indian flights have led to the release of many terrorists, informs the voiceover of R&AW chief N.F. Suntook (Adil Hussain), due to “negotiations” — the film’s slur, obsession, and mantra. This time, too, the Indian ministers are keen to compromise, but R&AW insists otherwise, for 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 opens to the 1984 hijack and then cuts to a flashback five years ago in Delhi, where we meet Anshul’s wife Radhika (Vaani Kapoor) and mother Raavi (Dolly Ahluwalia). Not good signs, I told myself, one of them will die soon. In this (overlong) segment, which dissipates the hot tension of the first few minutes, we find out more about the hero: He’s a national level chess player, a singer, a French instructor, and an IAS aspirant. We soon get a song that seems to be set in a wedding but moments later transforms into a clichéd romantic number. It, of course, doesn’t fit one bit. We then find out that Raavi has to fly to London and Radhika to Srinagar (it’s coming; it’s coming). Intermittent shots of shady people smiling at the airport (okay, these are terrorists – the voice in my head just wouldn’t shut up). Back in the flight, their watches start beeping at the same time and, yes, the plane is hijacked.
Sad (but totally predictable) plot turn: Anshul’s mother is dead. (His wife isn’t – this is not an Ajay Devgn film.) He is then abducted by the R&AW people and asked to become an agent. There’s no indication why he’s fit for the job – there’s another related twist towards the end, but that doesn’t add up, either. After the customary training, Bell Bottom cuts to London in 1983, where the R&AW agents are trying to apprehend the ’79 hijackers. Filmmaker Ranjit Tewari doesn’t want to waste time in such trivialities as credible plot transitions and simmering tension, so he makes Anshul literally stumble on a perpetrator: so far, so predictable.
Like most dramas in the subgenre, Bell Bottom is a fan of repetition. The movie informs us, again and again, that how Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is trying to undermine the country’s security, that Pakistan is betraying India via “dosti ka dikhawa”, that the era of “negotiations” is over. There’s repetition at the level of characters, too. The Indian cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister Morarji Desai (in a flashback to 1979) seem pitiable softies, fixated on – what else but – “negotiations”, giving inordinate leeway to General Zia-ul-Haq. All such implications are very Uri-like: that India needs to man up. Kumar even says a line that reminds you of an election campaign: “Abki baar, unki haar.” And even though the film doesn’t deride the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, it’s clever enough to take sides. In a later scene, when the ISI is outmanoeuvred, its chief says, “Shaatir woh nahin, R&AW hai [Gandhi isn’t cunning; R&AW is].”
Before I continue further, I need to contextualise the rest of the review. My career as a professional film critic has coincided with the 2014 Modi sarkar (and the rise of nationalist films). I’ve ranted and railed, been surprised and shocked, but I must confess: The Bollywood patriots have finally broken me (especially Tanhaji and Bhuj) – something I realised while watching Bell Bottom. So many nationalist dramas have been released over the last seven years – putting the “pro” in “propaganda” – lowering the bar so much that the current overall feeling is not of anger or annoyance, but fatigue and indifference. Predictable plot? Bring it on (at least it’s not loud). Customary nationalism? No big deal (at least it’s not Islamophobic). Contrived dramatic license? No problem (at least it’s (trying to be) factual).
When Bell Bottom wasn’t shrill or disgusting about its deshbhakti, I felt relieved. When it was not intent on drowning in its own bloodlust – the RA&W agents don’t kill any hijackers – I wanted to shout, “Progressive, sir, so progressive!” When Kumar said, “I don’t blame the Pakistani people, but there are some elements…”, I wanted to stand up and applaud. Maybe it’s my jadedness, maybe it’s my age – maybe it’s (cinematic) Stockholm Syndrome or maybe all of the above – but I’ve to admit that I’m humbled and defeated.
So, yes, Bell Bottom wasn’t all that bad in the second half. The movie didn’t follow the template of an invincible patriot, the nation’s inherent greatness, Pakistan’s unending vileness – and although of course it has some of that, the noise is not deafening. We even get a twist or three: the RA&W agents encounter several roadblocks; some plans don’t materialise; the climactic triumph, even though convenient, does look earned. It is still shoddy, make no mistake, but I at least found a silver lining: Bell Bottom is a Bhuj that went to a grooming school.