Dangal, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Mary Kom, Saina, Gold, Soorma, Saand Ki Aankh, Mukkabaaz – it may sound unfair to start a film review with the names of many other movies, but the sports-drama fatigue is real. Every few months Bollywood decides to give us a sports film that may or may not be inspired by real life events and that follows a set template. The protagonist finds their passion and we see their rise and their victories, which are then followed by a downfall so devastating that it seems impossible for them to rise again. But they do, they always do. This worn-out, predictable arc has induced a strong sense of familiarity in most films that come out of this genre.
Toofaan, written by Anjum Rajabali and directed by Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra, follows the beats of most other sports films, but it scores when it explores other untouched, thorny territories. Aziz Ali alias Ajju Bhai (Farhan Akhtar) is a street fighter who discovers that he has a knack for boxing when he's told by a gym teacher to help in his student's practice. As Aziz gets drawn into the sport, he begins coaching with an intimidating, Islamophobic coach, Nana Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), who helps him convert his strength into technique.
It is the film's romantic track, though, that helps the screenplay finds it footing. Ananya's character (played by Mrunal Thakur) is an intelligent attempt at subverting the hero's-love-interest trope, which has been done to death in the past. Farhan and Mrunal have a genuine chemistry that exudes warmth, and it provides some of the film's best moments. The film's first hour has training montages and even a rap song, but Akhtar makes it work. We've seen this innumerable times before, but the actor makes Aziz easy to root for. The little things – such as the Muhammad Ali poster in his bedroom – help add nuance to a film that sorely lacks it otherwise.
The film works better when it's outside the boxing ring rather than inside. Aziz has to deal with the inherent biases of those around him. He's an orphan, underprivileged and a minority. Mehra permeates these scenes with an empathetic eye. Through Nana Prabhu's bigoted lens, the film reflects the increasing – and often underestimated but omnipresent – intolerance in our country. Cinematographer Jay Oza has a keen eye for capturing texture, and after Gully Boy, he successfully manages to make the film look real, even when it becomes fully filmy. The boxing itself, though, doesn't have the same effective punch. There isn't anything wrong with it, but it follows the standard pattern that Mary Kom and Mukkabaaz did. You know exactly where every match is headed and how it will play out – even the climax.
It is in the second half where Toofaan gets caught in a rut of melodrama. The pace slackens and far too many songs are crammed in. The attempt at displaying religious harmony seems hurried and a bit on-the-nose. The sparks of innovation present in the first half begin to die down as the film begins to succumb to the limitations of a sports drama. The build up to the final match and the clichéd treatment undermine the film's many strengths and make the movie feel longer than its already daunting 161-minute length. These rankling bits are the main reason Toofaan doesn't deliver the emotional wallop and zing of Akthar and Mehra's previous collaboration, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
It is up to the actors then to save the day, and they do. Paresh Rawal – in a refreshing change from the banal comedy he is usually saddled with – reinvents the trope of the persistently dissatisfied coach and makes it his own through the course of the film. Supriya Pathak is lovely as Mrs. D'Souza, a nurse who considers Aziz to be her son. She doesn't have a lot of a screen time but lends her character a sense of humanity that is instantly endearing. Mrunal Thakur has a likeable screen presence, and even when her dialogue delivery is reminiscent of Alia Bhatt in her early days, Thakur gifts Ananya a pure heart and dignified agency. Watch her in a scene where she convinces to Aziz to get back to boxing after a five-year-long boxing ban, she's wonderful. This brings me to the film's axis: Farhan Akhtar. He's completely convincing as both the underdog trying to make it into a world that has a lot of cards against him and a paunchy, middle aged man trying to get back into a sport that gave him everything, and subsequently took it all away. His physical transformation compliments the emotional dexterity of his character. He manages to make the film watchable even in its dullest moments. Thanks to him, even the numerous training montages are rousing. Whether it be his stony eyes when he comes to know that he's been banned from the sport, or the perseverance with which he returns to it five years later, in very different circumstances, are masterfully done. Farhan is the only reason the film doesn't sink even when the treatment gets more and more heavy-handed.
Ultimately, there's more to like in Toofaan than not to. We've been here and seen this before, but Akhtar makes sure that the film is always watchable despite its inconsistencies. Perhaps if it had deviated more strongly from the sports-film formula, it could have reinvented the genre, but for now, as it stands, it's a fairly admirable achievement that I didn't mind giving three hours of my life to.