In its native India, this Akshay Kumar vehicle has become the first major Bollywood production to enter tentatively reopening cinemas. (UK multiplexes reopened with Salman Khan’s Radhe.) It’s easy to understand why: informed by the multiple plane hijackings that disrupted India and Pakistan’s early 1980s impasse, Ranjit Tewari’s film is a reassuringly traditional masala mashup that hands its enduring star a juicy lead role. Kumar’s NatSec nabob Anshul Malhotra bounds on screen to the loudest fanfare heard since James Bond’s, an illustrious intro only undercut by the revelation of his character’s codename: BellBottom, derived from Malhotra’s preference for circus-tent trousers. As a back-to-cinema-business proposition, it’s already one joke up on Tenet.
What follows is a teachable example of how Hindi films are routinely constructed to keep the movie gods on their pedestals. Malhotra is swiftly established as multilingual, a chess champion, a devoted son and a virile husband. (“Don’t tell me you’re a priest as well,” yells a friend as he dashes to a wedding.) By the first song’s fadeout, there’s no doubting who our hero is, or why he’s the first call when a separatist group with ISI ties seizes control of an Indian Airways flight with 210 passengers on board. We might only question the long, extraneous flashback to Malhotra’s spy-agency training; the answer is that it allows the leading man to indulge his 007 fantasies. Still, there have been worse Bond pastiches of late, and Kumar on this suave, precise form is worth indulging.
Though his foes are textbook action-pic nogoodniks – flushing hostages’ asthma inhalers down the loo – the script also taps into internal Indian politics. Centred around Lara Dutta’s steely Indira Gandhi, the debate within the film elevates BellBottom over the facile flagwaving of the recent Shershaah. A playful ding-dong on the soundtrack, too, as composer Kulwant Singh Bhamra conjures up proggy wigouts while Tewari leans into BellBottom’s caper elements. The finale looks like an amped-up Raid on Entebbe, as Kumar maps chess moves on to a Dubai runway and his trousers dodge a late-breaking sandstorm. Yes, it’s absurd, especially the last-reel Margaret Thatcher lookalike. But BellBottom always feels more movie than propaganda – a mission undertaken to offer audiences a good time after the longest and worst time.
• BellBottom is on release now