BellBottom review: Talks like a Gandhi, stings like a Bose

Though the events in the Akshay Kumar-starrer hijack film contradict the information out in public domain, writer Aseem Arora, Parveez Shaikh’s co-designed rescue-op [screenplay] is entertaining and believable.

Rating: 3 / 5

By Mayur Lookhar

9/11 changed the world. Diplomacy took a back seat as the aggrieved super powers took decisive action against terrorism – first in Afghanistan in 2001 and later in Iraq in 2003.

India, that has long battled Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, is no longer a soft target. The Uri surgical strike of 2016, and the Balakot Air strike of 2019 gave the enemy a strong message that India will no longer bow to terrorism.

Democracy entitles one to question the authenticity of such audacious manoeuvres.  Well, yours truly is no secular or left leaning critic, but no one wants to celebrate a fake narrative.  Producer filmmaker Nikkhil Advani’s D-Day [2013] tried to sell a much-desired but improbable manhunt of one of India’s most wanted criminals.  [It is common for Bollywood to create Dawood Ibrahim-like characters for their fiction fantasies. The wanted man though still enjoys patronage from the Pakistan army and its notorious but powerful intelligence wing – Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI)].  Superstar Akshay Kumar and director Neeraj Pandey’s Baby [2015] landed a Hafiz Saeed-like character in their fictional net.  Saeed is the mastermind of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

So, when Nikhil Advani, Akshay Kumar joined hands for BellBottom [2021], it was bound to create curiosity. Our trailer review gave a detailed account of how BellBottom is largely based on the hijacking of Indian Airlines jetliner on 24 August, 1984, but it appeared be drawing certain elements from the previous hijackings.

Bell Bottom trailer: The Akshay Kumar film is loosely based on the hijacking of Indian Airlines jetliner in August 1984

While Uri surgical strike and Balakot Air strike are much celebrated today, but India couldn’t afford such public chest thumping in the past.  In fact, back then India was a soft target. The multiple hijackings in the late 70s and mid 80s questioned our national security. Most of the hijackings were handled through diplomacy – a scene repeated in the 1999 hijacking of IC-814.  The behind-the-scene parleys were naturally kept classified. So, the idea of a successful Indian covert operation, led by R& AW [Research and Analysis Wing],  to tackle a particular hijacking in 1984 was bound to raise eyebrows? Did this really happen? Is director Ranjit M Tewari and the writer duo of Aseem Arora, Parveez Shaikh cooking up a fictional rescue op? As cliched as it may sound, but one is entitled to create a fictionalised drama that is remotely based on any classified information.

BellBottom’s [2021] disclaimer cited that the film is based on a true story but added that the replication of actual happenings – the story, screenplay, events, characters, locations, etc are fictional and no similarity with actual happenings should be interpreted. Quite a paradox.

The United Arab Emirates had reportedly banned BellBottom [2021] as its certification board, or maybe the kingdom felt that it showed their country in poor light. Remarkably, at the end of the film, BellBottom [2021] proudly states that this episode actually boosted India – United Arab Emirates ties.  Well, only the kingdom can answer that.

Let’s keep classified fact, fiction aside and take the film on its face value. We have Anshul Malhotra [Akshay Kumar], a R &AW analyst, better known by his codename BellBottom , assigned by the government and the Indian intelligence agency to carry out a maiden, dangerous rescue-op. BellBottom has a personal agenda too in this hostage crisis.   

Director Tewari and his writers Arora, Shaikh play it safe by projecting Pakistan’s then president General Mohammad Zia-Ul-Haq and ISI chief Akhtar Abdur Rehman Khan [Sunit Tandon] as the architects of this hijacking. India has long held that the Sikh Secessionist Movement, also known as Khalistan movement, was the creation of Pakistan to avenge the separation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971.  Tewari and his writers go as far as to suggest that the hijackers are not desi Indians, but local goons from Pakistan masquerading as Sikh separatists.  The Sikh population at large shouldn’t object to it, but the Khalistani members would definitely jeer this. Well, we are not here to bother about it, but simply review the film.  

BellBottom [2021] is really a tale of two halves. The first half feels tad dull where the backstory of Anshul Malhotra and certain back dated events, though important, don’t build enough engagement. Akshay Kumar, too, looks a bit off colour here. The audience is craving for the real action to begin. Once it does, BellBottom grips you like the desert storm of Dubai.

There’s no conventional daredevilry that you associate with a hijack drama.  Instead, the scenes first at Lahore airport and then later in Dubai  play out like a game of chess between the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan.  What you like about BellBottom is how director Tewari and the writers have kept the risk factors in mind.  A hijacked Indian plane taken to Lahore and then in an Arab nation, surely there was no room for chest-thumping bravado here.  Tewari has kept the sensitivity of the issue, the location in mind.

Unlike a cliched Bollywood action, hostage drama, BellBottom is a team effort in every sense. While our hero naturally leads the operation, but Tewari discreetly brings out the contribution of then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi [Lara Dutta], mystical R & AW founder R.N. Kao [Denzil Smith]. The latter is happy to lurk in the shadows.  The commanding R&AW officer here is Santook [Adil Hussain], presumably another code name.  Unlike some of the recent patriotic dramas, BellBottom cannot be accused of targeting or pandering to any political ideology. Yes, the kins of the late former Prime P.V. Narasimha Rao and the late Khurshed Alam Khan [father of Salman Khurshid] can question certain elements of the portrayal, but it is by no means defamatory.  Rao and Khan [played by Abhijeet Lahiri] occupied key posts in the then Indira Gandhi-led Congress government.  Rao [Thalaivasal Vijay] starts off as cynical character, but come the key hour, he surprises us with his show of strength.

Vaani Kapoor appeared to be playing another customary role, but she brings her War [2019] instincts to BellBottom [2021]. Sunit Tandon is a name synonymous with the International Film Festival of India.  He impresses in his brief but pivotal role as the then ISI chief.  The much-publicised prosthetic was just a tiny part of the role, but Lara Dutta carries off Indira Gandhi in her own confident style. And Huma Qureshi shows few different shades as the Emirati intel officer Adeela Rehman.

In an ideal scenario, such subjects are used to thrash out one-man army sagas.  Superstar Akshay Kumar though looks comfortable in the shoes of BellBottom.  His biggest asset is his sharp brain and calm demeanour in volatile situations.  The trailer showcased BellBottom as a polyglot proficient in German, Hindi, English, French.  The Hindi, English is fine, but we only recollect a sentence in French from Kumar.  Another thing we learn is that playing chess helps in burning calories too.  BellBottom is suave, calm, maybe lacking the customary Akshay Kumar humour, but it wasn’t warranted here.  Kumar’s composure makes Anshul Malhotra a very dependable character.

BellBottom’s colleagues bear similar cheeky codenames – Puchchi [Anirudh Dave], Dollar [Sumit Kaul], Saand [Amit Kumar Vashisth]. How these actors wished that their characters could have adopted a more hands-on approach to troubleshooting.  Zain Khan Durrani is fairly competent as the notorious terrorist Doddy, but not very intimidating.  His co-hijackers are projected as local Pakistani fools wielding toy guns in a hijacking – at least, when they first hijacked the plane.  The battle here is not so much within the aircraft, but its the game of chess being played outside by the respective intelligence agencies that grips your imagination.  However, you ought to question the ignorance of the PMO and close ministers for failing to read the dots that connect all these hijackings.  Indira Gandhi and her close aides surely didn’t think that Pakistan had no role to play in the previous hijackings.

The Baby-esque climax in Dubai creates a sense of deja vu, but a smash-and-grab scenario would have displeased diplomacy.  Arora, Shaikh stay clear of any jingoism or melodrama, but the few punchy lines are welcome.  The standout here is BellBottom telling the Emirati politician, “Sir, we come from the land of Gandhi, but we also have Bose”.  BellBottom’s rescue act can be defined as one where the unsung hero talks like a [Mahatma] Gandhi, stings like a [Subhash Chandra ] Bose.

Watch the trailer below.  BellBottom is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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