Clocking 20 years in the industry, the actor-director talks about his sports drama ‘Toofaan’ coinciding with Tokyo Olympics and the brutal beauty of boxing
Plan-A doesn’t always work out. And, it’s not always a bad thing. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Toofaan, in which Farhan Akhtar plays boxer Aziz Ali, was slated to hit theatres last October, but the pandemic struck and circumstances changed.
Also Read | Get ‘First Day First Show’, our weekly newsletter from the world of cinema, in your inbox. You can subscribe for free here
Written by Anjum Rajabali and Vijay Maurya, and based on an idea by Akhtar, the film has dropped on Amazon Prime Video a week before the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics. “This is a film about sports and we have a very promising contingent of athletes who are going to Tokyo, including nine boxers. They all did really well at the Asian Championships (in Dubai) and won a lot of medals,” says Akhtar during a Zoom call from his home in Mumbai.
Rising from the fringes
Toofaan (its promo was featured on a billboard at New York’s Times Square) chronicles the transformation of Aziz Ali aka Ajju Bhai, a henchman from Dongri, to a national level pugilist. While the story might be fictional, Akhtar believes it does mirror the reality of boxers the world over.
Echoing boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard who said ‘boxing is a poor man’s sport’, the writer-musician says, “Most boxers have come from underprivileged backgrounds; they’ve come from a life of systematic discrimination, crime and poverty. Life hasn’t dealt them a fair hand, and the only way for them to fight back, create a life for themselves and get some respect is by using their bodies and fists. That seems to be a very common thread with a lot of boxers. Even if you look at boxers in India, they are predominantly from the North East, from the villages of Haryana — they’re fighting for something more than just a medal”.
Akhtar isn’t wrong. Across boxing history, there’s a pattern of players coming from the streets or disenfranchised groups. “There is a lot of money in boxing, but rich people don’t ask their kids to become boxers. I was recently listening to a podcast of Mike Tyson, and they asked him about his son getting into boxing now. With this big smile on his face, Tyson said he had asked his son ‘Why are you doing this? You don’t need to, you’re going to a private school. You’re going to meet some animal in the ring like me who’ll want to bust your face in’,” he adds.
Akhtar’s boxing roots
The 47-year-old says he was introduced to boxing way back in the early 80s when Mohammad Ali first visited India for a series of exhibition matches. This was a few years after the famous Rumble in the Jungle event where Ali knocked out the undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman. “One heard stories from people who were lucky enough to meet him. Also, there was Rocky (1976) that put boxing on the cinematic map for everyone.” Though Akhtar never stepped into the ring himself, he was fascinated by the sport. “I always found something very visceral about the sport. There’s something very basic in the way it is a test of character and strength — it’s brutal but there’s beauty to it, and it’s captivating to see two people in a ring trying to outthink, outlast and outpunch each other.”
Ali might have introduced Akhtar to the sport but he belongs more to ‘the Mike Tyson generation’. “He brought a certain X-Factor; he could do anything when he was in the ring and that was exciting to watch.” As his interest in the sport increased, he expanded his knowledge to include former greats like Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston and Jack Johnson and the more contemporary athletes like Manny Pacquiao and Triple G.
The transformation bible
This film marks Akhtar’s second collaboration with Mehra. Their first was the biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), which won him the National Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment. To portray the late Milkha Singh, one of India’s greatest athletes, the actor trained for five to six hours a day for months. It was no different for Toofaan. “As much as I enjoy watching boxing and boxing films, getting in there and actually learning to do it is way tougher than you’d imagine.” Unlike BMB, this film required him to learn a whole sport from the beginning. “Boxing is a lot more demanding than track and field. Also, running wasn’t new to me as I had competed in school, though obviously nowhere near the level Milkhaji performed at.” For Toofaan, he trained for three months first to look like a boxer and then an out-of-shape father of one. “I definitely felt aches, pains and soreness in places that I didn’t feel when I was just running.”
Produced by Excel Entertainment, a production house Akhtar founded along with Ritesh Sidhwani in 1999, Toofaan is also the actor’s first film to go straight to streaming. Excel was one of the first movers in this fairly new medium when they produced the web show Inside Edge in 2017. They have since found success on the medium with Mirzapur (2018- ) and Made In Heaven (2019-). With theatres mostly still shut across the country, OTT platforms have emerged as the saviour for both the entertainment industry and audiences who otherwise would have been starved for entertainment. Akhtar describes the OTT space as a ‘level playing field’. “You can’t hide behind star power, glitz and glamour, good music or a great location. If the story is not engaging, you’ll press that button on your remote and move on.”
For Akhtar, the much-abused phrase ‘content is king’ has finally found its meaning again. “I do hope that when theatres open again, these learnings we’ve had over the past 18 months continue to apply to movie making. Of course, it’s great to watch your favourite stars and have that cinematic experience but let’s do that little bit more. Just because the audience has bought a ticket and won’t leave, it doesn’t mean we should take them for granted.”
Back on the director’s seat
Akhtar’s plans for keeping viewers glued to seats are almost all in place. As a producer there is Phone Bhoot, a horror comedy starring Katrina Kaif, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Ishaan Khatter; and Rishi Kapoor’s last film Sharmaji Namkeen. There is also a documentary where he’s collaborating with sister Zoya and Salman Khan on their lyricist fathers Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan. As an actor, Akhtar is expected to start shooting for director Ashutosh Gowarikar’s yet-untitled contemporary action film soon.
There have also been stories of him joining the cast of Ms Marvel from the Marvel Cinematic Universe but he’s keeping mum for now. “My only confirmed plan is to do a film with Ashutosh Gowarikar. Given the pandemic situation though, only time will tell when we’ll start,” says the actor who started his cinematic journey as a director almost exactly two decades ago with Dil Chahta Hai. After helming films like Lakshya (2004), Don (2006) and Don 2 (2011), he’s been on a directorial break that he hopes to end soon. “There definitely is something on the horizon. If it wasn’t for this pandemic, we would have been talking about it. But schedules have gone for such a toss — not only my own but the people I wanted to work with. Now, we’ll have to see when the dust settles, where these pieces land and when we can all come together and decide how and when to do that film. I do look forward to directing; I miss it at times,” concludes Akhtar.
Toofaan is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video