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Toofaan, On Amazon Prime Video, Works Best When It Innovates Within The Boxing Movie Formula, Film Companion
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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

In Anurag Kashyap’s 2017 boxing drama Mukkabaaz, a coach tells his protégé – ab tumko tay karna hai ki tumko mukkabaaz banna hai ki mukkebaaz. In other words, do you want to be a boxer or a brawler? In Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Toofaan, Aziz, a street fighter from Dongri, is faced with the same choice – boxing or bhaigiri. Aziz chooses a life of ‘izzat’. The catalyst in his life is a doctor at the local hospital. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s great line in As Good as it Gets, Ananya makes Aziz want to be a better man.

The idea for Toofaan came from Farhan Akhtar. The story and screenplay have been written by Anjum Rajabali, who has earlier written films like Ghulam and co-written films like Raajneeti. Vijay Maurya is credited with additional screenplay and dialogue. Despite the input of so many stellar talents, the writing doesn’t deviate much from the standard tropes of the boxing movie. As we’ve seen in several films before – from Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, which, 41 years later, continues to be the holy grail of boxing movies, to the Rocky and Creed franchise – here too, boxing isn’t merely a sport. It’s a shot at honour, redemption, glory, a better life. The ring is a battlefield in which the fighter suffers hellish punishment, but he proves bigger than his pain.

But before this, the fighter must be mentored by a formidable coach, who teaches him not just the sport but a way of life – here the role is played by Paresh Rawal, who is solid. And there must be a training montage, which establishes the physical rigour that the role requires. At the end, the underdog overcomes insurmountable odds. Here Aziz goes up against an opponent whose track record boasts of 40 bouts and 40 knockouts. In case we still don’t get how tough the fight is, the commentator says – sirf boxer hi nahi, punching bag bhi usse ghabrate hain. No prizes for guessing who wins.

Toofaan works best when it innovates within this formula – like its depiction of the relationship between a middle-class Hindu girl and a Muslim orphan who has been picked up from a gutter and raised by the local Dongri don. You have to suspend disbelief to believe that this romance could actually happen. It doesn’t help that Ananya is written as insistently chirpy and upright, and that Mrunal Thakur’s performance doesn’t add any nuance. But their love story, the bigotry they face, the thorny responses from family and neighbours, their hardscrabble circumstances and Aziz’s eventual compromise are constructed with conviction and authenticity. It is the beating heart of the film.

As is Farhan. Like he did in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, also in partnership with Rakeysh, Farhan locates the essence of a sportsman. He can’t match the brilliance or the searing fury of Vineet Kumar Singh in Mukkabaaz. But Farhan plays Aziz with charm and vulnerability, which contrasts nicely with his ability to inflict serious harm. The physical transformation – from chiselled muscles to middle-aged dad-bod – is also impressive. In a key scene, Aziz steps out of the bathroom in a towel so there is no doubt in our heads that the protruding belly is real. Which took me back to the lovely scene in Sultan in which Salman Khan, playing the ageing wrestler, looks in despair at himself in the mirror. Aziz getting back into shape is also a thing of beauty – like Rocky running up the steps, Aziz runs up the steps of a half-constructed building, against the rousing title number by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. I don’t know much about boxing but at no point does Farhan come off like an amateur. His body language in the ring is persuasive. The actor, who is a co-producer on the film, also helps to hold together the jostling tonalities in Toofaan.

Toofaan has been shot by Jay Oza, who also shot Gully Boy. Large chunks are set in the narrow lanes of Dongri and Nagpada. The visual grammar is aiming for gritty naturalism but too much of the storytelling is plotted like old-school Bollywood – early in the film, we see Aziz buying gifts for orphan boys, which is tacked on only to establish that he might be a goon but he is a good-hearted one; the Hindu-Muslim divide is partially mended by a blatantly manipulative scene set in a temple; Darshan Kumaar shows up as a bad guy – this track is wholly redundant and it made me wonder why filmmakers can’t give this talented actor more to do than glare icily. There’s also Supriya Pathak playing a kindly Catholic nurse who helps the young couple – her presence allows for a Christmas celebration in which the camera lingers on a decorative star so the plea for religious tolerance and secularism is complete.

This is not a film that wants us to think too much – the dialogue spells everything out. We have lines like – tumhara dard, tumhara gussa ek din tumhara sapna pura karega or Jeet-ta woh hai jo aakhir tak khada rehta hai. Aziz gets hooked to boxing after watching a video of Muhammad Ali in a ring. At various times in the film, he is compared to the legend, which is a bit of a stretch. The film’s length is also a hurdle. Toofaan runs for two hours and forty-three minutes. You have to get past the bland first act to get to the meat in the story. This might have worked better in a theatre but is harder to pull off on a streaming platform, where hundreds of options are only a click away.

Despite the convoluted screenplay, which included flashbacks within flashbacks, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was able to summon the demons and the formidable spirit that drove an athlete to greatness. That film also benefited from the weight of being inspired by a real-life personality. Toofaan can’t match the emotional punch of that. But Farhan’s tenacity and sincerity shine through even in the dull patches.

You can see Toofaan on Amazon Prime Video.

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