Bell Bottom is more of a grand gesture than a great comeback of the movie theatre experience. Don’t get me wrong. This Akshay Kumar films packs in just about enough for you to plan a trip to the cinemas, especially after what has been a good year-and-a-half since the lights flickered so bright at the movies. But then that’s essentially what Bell Bottom is — yet another Akshay Kumar film in which the man plays messiah, this time spurred by love for both mother and motherland.
First things first. Akshay’s superstar status on screen is complemented by his superhero gesture off it. Not only was Bell Bottom the first film to take off to Glasgow in the middle of a raging pandemic and wrap up shoot in a start-to-finish schedule last year, Akshay has put his money where his mouth is, with Bell Bottom becoming the first big-ticket film to open in movie theatres in
18-odd months. ‘Unlocking Cinemas’ is the message Bell Bottom has come in with, the film unflinchingly embracing the rider of 50 per cent occupancy at cinemas and the roadblock of movie theatres being shut in many parts of the country. As a result, it’s showing in only 2,200 screens across the country, as opposed to an easy 4,000-plus screens if this was the #OldNormal.
Kudos then to AK, whose gummy smile as he berates Nandu about the ills of smoking even before Bell Bottom flickers on screen, doesn’t come off as annoying when you realise that watching a film in a movie theatre now is a luxury. Even the seats seem more cushiony, the overpriced popcorn a little less soggy.... One only wishes that Bell Bottom turned out to be the consistently entertaining film we had expected it to be.
Bell Bottom positions itself as a slick espionage thriller ‘inspired by true events’. The year is 1984. Indira Gandhi — played by a virtually unrecognisable Lara Dutta Bhupathi buried under layers of a prosthetic job well done — is prime minister, but her regime is trademarked by quite a few plane hijackings, something that became rampant at that time as the result of the quick rise of various terrorist groups. One such hijacking prompts RAW to call up its ‘sharpest’ data analyst, for whom we are told the mission is personal.
For Anshul Malhotra (Akshay) became Bell Bottom after losing a dear one to a similar hijacking five years ago. A laboured backstory in which Vaani Kapoor, as Anshul’s wife, pops up in two songs, takes up more screen time than it should. Bell Bottom’s relatively lax first half thankfully gives way to a more energetic second hour when the action kicks into top gear. Seven hours, 210 hostages and four hijackers is the target for Bell Bottom and Co. — with the predictable agency vs bureaucracy deadlock playing out — and you settle in your seat, expecting a cracker.
But Bell Bottom is, at best, a stringing together of some thrilling moments that somehow doesn’t translate into a cohesive whole. While director Ranjit M. Tewari — a Calcutta boy who calls Creek Row home when he is in the city — notably lifts the proceedings in Half Two, Bell Bottom lacks the nervous energy of Argo or even the strong emotional heft of Akshay’s own Airlift. With the passengers on the hijacked flight being reduced to numbers and not moulded into characters, the viewer finds it impossible to emotionally invest in the film. One felt a lump in the throat when the Tricolour went up in the penultimate moments of Airlift. The eyes welled up when Vikram Batra’s eyes closed at the end of Shershaah. With Bell Bottom, you feel nothing at the end.
What the film delivers instead is some good ol’ action (a Mission Impossible-styled sandstorm sequence is well executed), some clap-worthy punchlines and a confident Akshay who can now play such roles with his eyes closed, his natural agility lending itself to the part well.
Adil Hussain, as Bell Bottom’s boss, delivers more than what he was possibly given on paper, but apart from Lara, the other two women, with Huma Qureshi’s act being billed as a guest appearance and Vaani’s Mr and Mrs Smith twist at the end holding more promise than her entire screen time in the film, are reduced to a token presence. This, after the film makes the symbolic gesture of having Akshay’s name come up fourth in the opening credits after the women actors. There’s no doubt Akshay, in what is essentially a one-man show, will bring back audiences — at least in some numbers — to theatres with Bell Bottom. But time to walk the talk on other fronts too, maybe?
BELL BOTTOM (U/A)
Director: Ranjit M. Tewari
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Lara Dutta Bhupathi, Vaani Kapoor, Huma Qureshi, Adil Hussain
Running time: 125 minutes