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Farhan Akhtar: Boxing is not a rich man’s sport- Cinema express

Farhan Akhtar: Boxing is not a rich man’s sport

The filmmaker-actor joins director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and co-stars Mrunal Thakur and Hussain Dalal to chat about Toofaan

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Published: 26th July 2021
Farhan Akhtar: Boxing is not a rich man’s sport

There are enough Muhammad Ali references in Toofaan to border on the screechy. The affection, though, is mostly heartfelt, as lead star Farhan Akhtar readily enthuses about the American legend. “By far (he’s the greatest),” Farhan says. “Not only for what he did inside the ring but also what he did outside of it.”

In Toofaan, Farhan shares more than a surname with Ali. As Mumbai street fighter Aziz Ali, he watches a video of the late heavyweight champ and decides he wants to box too. Late in the film, a commentator likens Aziz’s fighting style with Muhammad Ali’s. Even his comeback – after a gap of five years – echoes Ali’s Rumble In the Jungle return, famously enshrined in the documentary When We Were Kings and in Michael Mann’s Ali.

Yet what doesn’t match up is the sheer spit and fire. Out on Amazon Prime, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s film is achingly tame, the story of a gangster transformed by the ring. The original idea came from Farhan, who passed it on to Anjum Rajabali to write and develop. As with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Farhan’s transformation in Toofaan has been hailed: he gained and lost 15 kilos for the two timelines, besides picking up the sport from scratch. He also immersed himself in the history of boxing, rooted as it is in race, class, religion and politics.

“Rich people’s kids don’t box,” Farhan elaborates. “I remember listening to a podcast of Mike Tyson where he was talking about his son wanting to box. And Mike Tyson was like ‘Why do you want to do that? You go to a private school!’”

Toofaan reflects this gap through the orphaned Aziz rising up from the streets of Dongri. A Muslim boxer from a tough neighbourhood, he’s quickly put through the wringer. He finds a coach in Nana Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), whose acceptance of Aziz is offset by his deep bigotry towards Muslims.

“I felt I could have a conversation through this story,” Rakeysh says about crafting a film for its time. “As a director, my job is to find an expression. Yes, the film is not about preaching or (giving) a message but it definitely has a voice.”

Earlier, Rakeysh admits, he wasn’t a big fan of boxing. That changed when he started interacting with club-and-national-level boxers and understanding their journeys. He met boxers from the North-East, from villages in Haryana, from the Army. “99% of boxers in the world come from some real struggle, whether it’s Black America or the India of today.”

Shooting in Dongri, Rakeysh was moved by the goodwill of the local residents, who opened up their houses and also joined in as extras. Nana Prabhu’s club, meanwhile, was located in a basement in Shivaji Park in Dadar (a Marathi-dominated area). These contrasts helped bring alive the different shades of Mumbai. “We shot Aziz’s house in a 10x10 feet room on the third floor of a congested building in Nagpada,” Rakeysh shares. “Because the characters were so real, we had to shoot in real locations.”

Mrunal Thakur, who plays a doctor and Aziz’s romantic interest, says that between shots, they would ditch the vanity van and sit in little shops lining the streets. Unaccustomed to that part of the city, she was struck by how industrious everyone was. “People would get up at 4 o' clock and offer us tea,” she recalls. “Because I’m a Maharashtrian, I was able to blend in easily.”

 As Nana Prabhu’s daughter Ananya, Mrunal anchors the film emotionally. She’s most affecting in the middle stretch, when Ananya and Aziz are struggling to make it on their own. “People assumed this would be a typical supporting role for me again,” says Mrunal (Super 30, Batla House). “But she is a crucial part of the story. Also, at a time when there’s so much loss around us, Ananya’s character represents that element of hope in us.”

The toughest gig in the film, though, fell on Hussain Dalal. Hussain plays Munna, Aziz’s best friend. In one scene, asked if he’s heard of Muhammad Ali, he calls him a punk from a nearby gully. Surely that took some guts? “It’s just the character,” Hussain laughs. “A guy like Munna has no clue who Muhammad Ali is. It’s also a really common name. So we took the liberty to joke on that." 

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