The story of a goon from a Mumbai slum who takes up boxing for a chance at a respectable career and life makes for an inspiring watch
Sports films invariably follow a certain construct. An unlikely lead takes up a sport (often by chance, occasionally due to circumstances) only to discover that it lends a sense of larger purpose and extends meaning to his otherwise listless life. Determined to deliver above the rest, he immerses himself in perfecting the skills required to a point of manic obsession, even making multiple sacrifices to keep up. There are those who try to pull him down and those who cheer from the sidelines and despite all the obstacles and setbacks enroute, he must take the final plunge to seek ultimate glory.
This one doesn’t stray much from this mould but still makes for a largely gripping and inspiring watch.
Before he’s dubbed Toofaan, Ajju/ Aziz Ali (Farhan Akhtar) happens to be a local stronghold from Dongri, a notorious neighbourhood in Mumbai. In the opening scene where he’s roughing up a restaurant owner who’s crossed his boss (Vijay Raaz), he throws his arms without restraint or skill but with much intensity. The thuds and thwacks rendered by foley artists in the scene capture the raw energy that desperately craves direction. In an average meet cute, he encounters Ananya, the charity hospital doctor who dresses up his wounds. She initially dismisses him for his gundagiri, even refuses to attend to him but eventually comes around when she gets acquainted with his benevolent side.
When Ajju gets into a brawl with a boxer at the local gym, he’s inadvertently introduced to the sport. It only takes browsing through Muhammad Ali's best knockout videos on YouTube to get him hooked. But the journey to becoming Dongri’s Cassius Clay is littered with challenges. Finding a guru in Nana Sir (Paresh Rawal), a supporting ally and partner in Ananya, helps. But it takes circumventing social barriers and personal setbacks and a fistful of courage to achieve ultimate glory.
A common trope in sports films is that scene where the coach discovers his most-committed pupil toiling away way beyond practice hours, hoping to turn those who’ve dismissed him. This is when the coach instantly realises that he has found his golden boy and breaks into a monologue. He articulates the vital lessons that this driven sportsman could turn to, in that decisive match when all else fails. This film has that scene too but the writing isn’t laboured or preachy and it helps that Rawal and Akhtar pack restrained performances that seem effortless yet effective.
What infuses Toofaan with a touch of authenticity and mood has to be the dialogue by Vijay Maurya (Gully Boy) which varies from thought-provoking to anecdotal to unfiltered street speak and the words often elevate ordinary scenes. When Ajju ruptures his eyelid in a bout and the doc recommends stitches, he jokes, “Taake ka nishan se vazhan aata hain chehre pe. (Getting stitches on the face helps one appear distinguished).” It may seem like just a line but plays a vital role in defining the character’s attitude and shapes his personality.
Some may argue that Akhtar may be a tad too old to play this character. But few actors in the industry can pull off the conviction, enthusiasm and drive the 47-year-old conveys in his character. That his Ajju experiences towering highs and plunging lows, required the actor to internalise the situations and circumstances. And he does that without allowing the emotions to surface despite carrying the character’s baggage in every frame. His last sport’s film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (also helmed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra), the biopic based on the life of late athlete Milkha Singh, confirmed he had the chops to slip into the skin of an athlete and this one is an (upper) cut above the rest. Thakur, one would imagine, would be assigned to a peripheral part rather than that of a leading lady in a film like this. But not only does she have a significant role, she also furnishes Ananya’s distinguished personality and conveys her moods and concerns, often wordlessly. Rawal manages the crotchety coach who harbours much hate mostly by pulling grim faces. But in a scene, where his character cracks under the weight of concealed trauma, he ensures we know that he’s the veteran in this cast. The supporting hands here, including Hussain Dalal, Supriya Pathak Kapur and Dr. Mohan Agashe are reliable and unobjectionable.
Mehra can be considered one of the most experimental filmmakers of our time. His ability to consistently take risks has paid off (Rang De Basanti, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) and blown upon his face (Delhi-6, Mirziya). Going by the treatment and form, Mehra, who didn’t believe in being determined by box office success, is now conforming to, dare we say, a tried-and-tested routine. His signature flourishes and patented style are intermittently visible but one can’t ignore the deliberate attempt to temper the narrative for universal appeal.
The soundtrack of a sports film may not be a game-changer but surely one that can accurately, well, set the tone. On that front, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, the Amar, Akbar and Anthony of the Hindi music industry, barely raise the bar. While most of the songs are tasked with conveying the passage of time in the film’s story, not one may make it to your playlist. Cinematographer Jay Oza’s fluid, close body shots ensure the contact sport is experienced from uncomfortably close quarters and every jab and hook seems decidedly devastating.
A story of a roadside rowdy taking to pro boxing will naturally translate as one of immense determination and hope. But Toofaan is also a love story of two unlikely individuals from different worlds struggling to pull through. And while a side plot in a sports film may seem little more than a distraction, this one actually drives the narrative without seeming forced. But importantly, it also very sneakily delivers a sucker punch at the prejudices that many hold against those from different communities.