When it comes to turning real-life stories into box office money-spinners, no Bollywood star has a better track record than Akshay Kumar.
From 2016’s Airlift, about a businessman who helped evacuate Indians stranded during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to Pad Man, the 2018 comedy about the inspiring story of a man who invented a machine to make low-cost sanitary pads for women, Kumar is known for bringing little-known stories into mainstream pop culture.
In turn, he’s reaped major successes along the way. His 2019 film Mission Mangal, for instance, about a group of scientists who put together India’s first interplanetary space probe, made more than 2.9 billion rupees (approximately $39 million) globally. It was also one of the highest-grossing films in India that year.
Kumar, 53, is back to form with his latest film Bell Bottom, out now in the UAE, about a group of spies tasked with foiling an active hijacking in the 1980s.
“I absolutely love espionage thrillers, especially those based on real-life events, and Bell Bottom was just that,” he tells The National. “It was an unknown story waiting to be told, inspired by true events from the 1980s – an era infamous for several [plane] hijackings."
Kumar says he immediately accepted the role when director Ranjit M Tewari (Lucknow Central, 2017) and writer Aseem Arora approached him with the script in 2019.
“Bell Bottom is an extraordinary story from start to finish. How can you not want to make something so thrilling?
“The movie transports you back to the past and unwraps one of the most extraordinary stories of intelligence, espionage and action involving [an] agent and how he formulates India’s first covert operation. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says. “Also, it’s got great music and phenomenal fashion and swagger.”
The film’s title is the code name of its lead character, played by Kumar, who heads a team of agents from RAW, or the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency. Actress and former Miss Universe Lara Dutta also stars in the film as former prime minister Indira Gandhi.
One of the first major movies to get a cinema release after India’s deadly second wave of the coronavirus, Kumar says he’s glad the film has been relatively on schedule, despite missing its initial January 2021 release date.
Shot extensively in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland, Bell Bottom was one of the few films still in production during the lockdowns in 2020.
“About a month and a half into the pandemic and the lockdown, I was restless as it was the longest I had been away from facing a camera. I was in conversation with Vashu [Bhagnani, producer], who was then in the UK. And while speaking to him, I suggested we shoot the film abroad in a bio-bubble, and within seconds he agreed,” Kumar recalls.
“It was certainly a different experience for sure. While we are used to filming with hundreds of people on a set, we only had the bare minimum necessary to operate, we stuck to our hotel rooms and everyone followed strict Covid-19 protocols.
“Overall, I am happy we could finally film and I was truly grateful to finally hear ‘lights, camera, action’ after such a long time.”
Deepshikha Deshmukh of Pooja Entertainment, producers or Bell Bottom, says the motive was "to bring joy to the millions of fans who have had a difficult year and a half with the lockdown, and importantly support the tens of thousands of cinema industry members including theatres, exhibitors and distributors".
"We were aware of the risks we were taking to film a production amid the first wave of the pandemic and now, very aware of the risk to release the film theatrically during the pandemic," she says.
"Someone had to start and we hope that with Bell Bottom we can bring hope and optimism for the industry."
Kumar, whose breakthrough Bollywood film Khiladi was released in 1992, is one the highest-paid actors in the country. He and his wife, former actress Twinkle Khanna, also run a film production company called Hari Om Entertainment. The couple, along with many of their Bollywood colleagues, were known for stepping up and lending a hand to those in need during India's lockdown.
Kumar says the pandemic has changed him in many ways and reminded him of his privileges.
“The lockdowns forced you to take a step back and take stock of the meaning and value of life and what we really need to focus our time, attention and energy on,” he says. “Covid-19 spared no one, in whatever shape and form it touched our lives. It has no care for the colour of your skin or your social status or gender.”
A prolific actor known for his versatility, Kumar has two other films ready for release. Prithviraj, a historical film about king Prithviraj Chauhan, who ruled north-west India in the 1100s, is set to be released in November. The film will also mark the Bollywood debut of Miss World 2017 Manushi Chhillar.
Then there’s Sooryavanshi with director Rohit Shetty, known for his bombastic films with larger-than-life characters. The action-comedy, which was supposed to be released last year, does not have a new date yet.
“I’m excited for the release of both films: Sooryavanshi is an action-packed super cop saga and Prithviraj is a period drama. I have also recently completed the schedules for Bachchan Pandey and Raksha Bandhan as well,” he says.
“I have just started a new film, which I’m filming in the UK, and upon its completion I plan to go for a start-to-finish schedule of Ram Setu around mid-October. And as soon as that is over, I’ll jump into OMG 2, which will again be a start-to-finish schedule.”
At this stage in his career, Kumar says there aren’t any roles he won’t do.
“There are countless ways a role could be performed. It also depends on the context at large. So if the role and context works, there’s always a reason to consider it,” he says. “The one reason I won’t consider a role is if I don’t see myself in it.”
Bell Bottom is now showing in the UAE