Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Writers: Anjum Rajabali, Vijay Maurya
Cinematography: Jay Oza
Edited by: Meghna Manchanda Sen
Starring: Farhan Akhtar, Mrunal Thakur, Paresh Rawal, Darshan Kumaar and Supriya Pathak
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
It's widely accepted that there is no novel way to make a boxing movie anymore. Real or fictional, it's been done before. The backstories, the circumstances, the punches, the training montages, the mental ghosts – they're all the same. Even the blood rolls down a cheek with the same velocity. Every filmmaker doing a boxing tale must feel like little Truman Burbank in school, when a teacher shoots down his ambitions of being a world explorer: "too late dear, there's nothing left to discover". As a result, the distinction between a great sports movie and a mediocre one is negligible. The tropes don't – cannot – change. All that's really left, then, is the film-making itself and the cultural context. The setting can be different. The way the bouts are constructed can be innovative. The performances can provoke. The score can evoke. The personality of the story matters.
But Toofaan, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, is the pinnacle of derivative art. At some strange level, it adapts the "Ship of Theseus" theory: If every single part is borrowed, will the final film still look original? Despite being a fictional biopic – which means the makers were not bound by any form of "truth" – Toofaan is a tired mixtape of biopic cliches. Not a single aspect feels new. Toofaan stars Farhan Akhtar as Aziz Ali, a small-time Dongri extortionist with a Circuit-like sidekick (Hussain Dalal), who takes to boxing because…he's a strong bloke. The mouthy goon woos "world-famous" coach Nana Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), a veteran Mumbaikar who dislikes Muslims because his wife was killed in a bomb blast but trains Ali anyway so that a wise friend can tell him that 'boxing is your true religion'. While Nana and Ali take India by storm, Ali finds love with Ananya (an over-spirited Mrunal Thakur), a kind doctor who, unbeknownst to everyone but her, is Coach Nana's daughter. The conflict occurs midway through the film when both men realize who State champ Ali is dating, thus bringing to the fore Nana's bigotry and Ali's struggle to balance boxing with big-city domestic woes.
The writing of Toofaan is uninspired, choosing to exist in broad shades of black and white. The hip-hop song (Todun Taak) has such an "Apna Time Aayega" hangover that even the dialogue (Gully Boy's Vijay Maurya) sounds spoofy. So much of the film feels like it's on fast-forward, as though it were ticking a classic playbook without really understanding the nuances of each move. The result is sterile and distant, like a bullet-point lesson in screenwriting instead of screenwriting itself. For instance, Ali helps out at an orphanage – it's 2021 but we're still doing that orphanage thing – so that Ananya catches a glimpse of him dancing with the kids and falls for the brute with a heart of gold. For perspective, Dia Mirza's entry scene from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein – where she randomly dances with street kids in Mumbai's pouring rain – was 20 years ago. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a track of Ali's twin brother – who probably aspired to be a WWE wrestler until he learned it was fake – was edited out from the final cut. Furthermore, a Muhammad Ali video is all it takes to inspire the hero to get serious about the sport. This is surface-level posturing: You can't just drop in an icon and not follow through with it, either politically or physically. Is it just the surname? Did this Ali borrow his arrogance and technique? Where does religion come in?
Then there's the rush. Weeks and months pass in a heartbeat, using music as a crutch, and eschewing the grit and loneliness of the sport. Even the songs try too hard, especially Arijit Singh's "Jo Tum Aa Gaye Ho," which is supposed to be a falling-in-love track but is composed as a dark obsession ballad. The conceit – of Ali and Nana being unaware of Ananya's identity – is playful but farfetched. When Ali tries to break free of his past, his meeting with his boss (Vijay Raaz) lacks imagination and depth, as though the film is in a tearing hurry to shed the flab and enter the ring. At one point, when Ali is banned for match-fixing, the phase feels like an incidental blur – it is resolved all too easily with a time-lapse song, in the process refusing to establish the stakes of his inevitable comeback. Another example is the way a desi Ivan Drago-style rival is parachuted into the story abruptly, once Ali enters the Nationals, with ominous music scoring images of the beast punching a bag. Add to this the age-old habit of bumping off the character that looks the happiest and bubbliest. Every decision is so dated that one wonders if the script was written the day after Rocky won the Oscar. Or perhaps the day after Raging Bull lost it.
Farhan Akhtar is fierce in the ring, but his Dongri accent keeps lapsing into a Juhu one in the second half of the film. His body language carries the inertly filmed bouts (the scar under his eye acts as natural dressing), yet the film dilutes his presence by dividing him into clean chapters. His commitment to such roles is unerring, but I'm not entirely convinced about his ability to disappear into an environment. One of the few disarming portions of Toofaan features Paresh Rawal's Marathi manoos Nana bantering with his old friend (Mohan Agashe) over rum and snacks. One's a liberal, the other's an Islamophobe, and their impassioned chats throw some light onto a middle-class India we rarely hear in mainstream movies. The film refuses to judge Nana for his prejudice, which is a nice change from the moral posturing most biopics succumb to.
I know it's unfair, but it has to be said that a film like Toofaan is nearly redundant to a generation that's grown up on Hollywood sports dramas and underdog fairytales. Other than a basic Hindu-Muslim undertone, there's little else that Toofaan adds to the overcrowded genre. Even the fights aren't edited with the sort of rhythm that a boxing film earns – the reaction shots are awkward and the build-up lacks bite, evident from the way a game-winning KO punch always feels like an anti-climax rather than an accumulation. Ali may win, but his battles rob the viewers of the anticipation of victory. Maybe it's also time to address Hindi cinema's sports commentary problem – it can't be difficult to figure out that a game's verbal language need not be an orgy of proverbs and kitschy phrases. The viewer relies on the commentary to read the ebbs and flows of a match – more so in a technical sport like boxing – and storytellers need to stop treating this device as a glorified voiceover and character sketch. More often than not, they sound like the filmmakers telling the audience how to perceive a situation: Aziz Ali is thinking of all those years in the darkness, away from the game and in disgrace...
Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra seems at ease in Delhi (Rang De Basanti, Delhi 6), but his Mumbai (Bandra Fort for romance, Marine Drive and under-construction skyscrapers for cardio) lacks texture and emotion – and it takes some doing to make a metropolis like this look boring. Most of the supporting characters look like imitations of Maharashtrian movie characters (including Supriya Pathak's Nurse D'Souza), and the stereotypical snowball morphs into an avalanche once an ubiquitous Darshan Kumar again appears as a stone-faced baddie whose only purpose is to stare intensely at people. Throw a glass eye into the mix, and his Disney-villain legacy is well and truly cemented.
Contrary to popular belief, it's never a good sign if you're watching a film and thinking of a hundred other films. And over 163 minutes, one has no choice but to turn this defect into a spotting game. To paraphrase (and desexualize) a famous song: A little bit of Rocky in my life, a little bit of Gully Boy by my side, a little bit of Mohabbatein is all I need, a little bit of Sultan is what I see, a little bit of Southpaw in the sun, a little bit of Lage Raho Munna Bhai all night long, a little bit of Sooryavansham here I am, a little bit of Saathiya makes me your man. There are many more titles, but I've run out of verse.