How do you make a sports drama without making it repetitive? If the film is inspired by or a biopic of a real-life sportsperson, there is not much that can be tweaked. Saina, Saand ki Aankh and Soorma are all films based on and inspired by the people shown in these films. However, if the story is fictional the choices open up, allowing for variation in the screenplay. And that’s where Toofaan soars and scores.
Written by Anjum Rajabali (previous credits include Raajneeti, Ghulam, China Gate) and directed by Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Delhi-6, Rang De Basanti), Toofaan stars Farhan Akhtar as Aziz Ali, a.k.a. Ajju Bhai, a local street ruffian who, along with his sidekick Munna (Hussain Dalal), goes about roughing up people at the request of Jaffar Bhai (Vijay Raaz), the local Dongri don. During a regular run at the gym, he discovers his liking for boxing and is sucked towards it (he has a poster of Muhammad Ali). He pursues coach Nana Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), an Islamophobic, love-jihad-believing man (a backstory involves his wife being killed in a bomb blast), to get him to coach him. The training montage (set to the banging rap track ‘Todun Tak’) shows Ajju’s dedication towards the sport. A nicely executed scene involves Nana and Ajju at night just before closing time, where Nana finally comes around to allowing him to enter the ring; he says, ‘ye boxing ring tera ghar hai aur iska kona kona tujhe maloom hona chahiye‘. Both of them take the sport and the country by storm and it is here that Nana gives Ajju the moniker Toofaan. Ajju meanwhile finds inspiration and love in Ananya (Mrunal Thakur), a doctor at the local charity hospital (and coach Nana’s daughter). She is optimistic, full of beans and the kind of person that Ajju wants to become a better man for, nowhere better described than in the love ballad ‘Ananya’ (my favourite track).
The film works because its not only about boxing and the rise, fall and eventual redemption of Ajju. While it follows the traditional beats and tropes of a sports drama, the sport is only a vehicle to carry the story. What the makers invest in is the relationships within the setting. There is a friendship between the progressive Bala (Mohan Agashe) and the regressive Nana, forged by alcohol. They argue continuously; a hilarious and at the same time sobering and reflective moment is their disagreement on the choice of restaurant due to Nana’s Islamophobia. Then there is the bond between Nana and Ananya, which evolves from both being each other’s support system to Nana completely disowning her because of her relationship with Ajju; a great scene showing this is where he refuses to even see his granddaughter when Ananya comes visiting. But it is the romantic track between Ajju and Ananya that is the best part of the film, giving it nuance and depth. The chemistry is refreshing and the woman has agency throughout.
The screenplay also continually takes jabs at the brushed-under-the-carpet yet ever increasing issues in modern society. The hate and bigotry that Ajju and Ananya face for being a mixed-religion couple, their struggles to find decent accommodation and the compromises that Ajju makes (he match-fixes in a final and is banned for five years) reflect reality. The second half of the film is about Ajju and his redemption. A pivotal scene involves a rotund Ajju wrapped only in a towel being handed a letter by his daughter from the boxing federation stating his ban is over. This is followed by Ananya’s death in a stampede, which is unexpected given that it comes after to a scene with Ananya playfully mocking and flirting with Ajju over a phone call. This forms the axis for Ajju to get back in shape and fight in Ananya’s memory, because she always believed in him and his dream.
The performances crackle and support the screenplay in the wobblier and duller moments. Paresh Rawal is an absolute revelation as Nana. He embodies the clichéd trope of being a tough coach; his diction, body language, the inherent hate that he possesses and his final acceptance through his granddaughter are extremely well spelt out through the performance. It helps that a lot of his scenes are with Mohan Agashe, who is extremely crafty and the perfect foil to him throughout. Mrunal Thakur brings out the charm and humour that her character requires but also gives her an understated strength. She switches between emotions and balances her relations seamlessly with both Ajju and Nana. Smaller characters do well within their limited scope. Hussain Dalal gets a standout moment during the match-fixing bout. Supriya Pathak as Sister D’souza is convincing. She takes the couple under her wings, giving them a roof over their head and loving them like her own, a smart nod to the secularity of India.
But ultimately, it is Farhan Akhtar who shines and makes the film his own. It’s his strongest performance since Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Unlike Milkha, where he had traits to replicate, here he is free to do what he likes with the character. He is sincere, has a likeable screen presence and portrays the various stages of the character well. He gives Ajju a vulnerability and an emotional graph that makes you root for him at every stage. Even when the actions are wrong, the intention can never be doubted. An example of this is the match-fixing bout. The trick of having Ajju stare directly into the camera, and in turn towards Ananya, works because Farhan shows defeat and compromise through his eyes so well that no dialogue is needed. It’s top notch film-making. The dialogue and cinematography team of Gully Boy also do the job here. Both Vijay Maurya (dialogue) and Jay Oza (DOP) are well aware of the surroundings of Dongri.
Toofaan may not have the emotional heft of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which was immensely aided by the towering personality and life story of Milkha Singh. But it goes beyond just being a sports drama and invests in the little relationships that are littered throughout the story, while raising questions about the thorniest of issues that our country grapples with.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.