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Toofaan Review: An Earnest Boxing Drama Let Down By Clichés

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Every time Aziz Ali (Farhan Akhtar), the protagonist of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s boxing drama Toofaan, engrosses himself in the sport, the narrative becomes single-layered. The film relieves the underdog boxer, who goes by the nickname Toofaan, from the practicalities of urban life while the time-compressing montage showcases him working out doggedly, often unassisted, covered in a photogenic sheen of sweat. Life is another segment, conveniently dissociated from the stylistically shot images of pugilist procedural. How does he sustain himself financially during this period? How does his family cope with his emotional and physical absence?

Toofaan belongs to the same realm as Mukkabaaz and Panga, where sports is a device used to discuss the segregations within Indian society, the loop of social barriers the athletes have to transcend to be visible and successful.

Aziz lives in a one-room apartment in a run-down housing complex in Mumbai. One of the trusted henchmen of a local gangster (Vijay Raaz), his life is shaped by coincidences — happy or tragic. Some of them might seem too implausible for an audience that has moved past old-fashioned Bollywood melodramas. The film assumes that the characters didn’t have a life before the film began, which is why Aziz walks into a boxing school in his neighbourhood one fine morning to collect rent and gets hooked to the sport. He must have been there before and met these people. What changed this time?

The protagonist’s characterisation is ridden with clichés. The extended flashback sequence that narrates his life begins with a street fight. Aziz and the goons engage in the customary trash talk and proceed to the fight that establishes his physical strength and crude boldness. Subsequently, he meets Ananya Prabhu (Mrunal Thakur), a young doctor at a charity hospital. She, quite predictably, rebuffs him first, taking him for just another street ruffian. Later, she changes her mind once she spots him buying shoes for children from an orphanage. For anyone who thought that the use of charity as a narrative trope in Bollywood romantic dramas had expired, this might come as a rude surprise.

But there are some nice touches. Mehra creates poignant personal moments that depict the simple pleasures of living in a city with people from different backgrounds, defending oneself from the rising communal tendencies in society. Supriya Pathak, in a minor supporting role as a good-humoured nurse, adds to this warmth. The film subtly indicates that Aziz takes up boxing because he wants to achieve what the legendary Muhammad Ali did, in whose upbringing, faith and social background he identifies himself.

Ananya is essentially a delicate manic-pixie who heals Aziz’s emotional wounds and heralds him to a better life. She is so cheerful that a laughing club might be the place she feels the most at home. It is the kind of role that, if left unattended, gets picked up by Aditi Rao Hydari. Aziz’s close friend (Hussain Dalal) sums up the difference between them using a clichéd line, “We tear things, she mends,” while trying to dissuade Aziz from falling in love with her. However, Ananya doesn’t sink into an insufferable Bollywood stock character, largely thanks to Thakur’s natural charm.

In Aziz’s relationship with Ananya and with his coach Narayan Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), Mehra inserts social commentary. For Ananya and Aziz, living together as an interfaith couple isn’t easy in the multicultural city of Mumbai since the insular housing societies bar the presence of people from the other religion. Prabhu, a famed boxing coach whose wife was killed 20 years ago in a terrorist attack, lives a double life. He is a religious bigot in his personal life — he doesn’t want his Chinese meal prepared by a Muslim chef — and a thoroughly secular man in his professional life. While Aziz can train under him, share drinks with him, he cannot trespass the personal boundaries. Rawal is superb as Prabhu, an aching father and a sincere teacher, who has to fight his inner demons and become a better human being.

Farhan Akhtar has the build of a professional boxer. The physical and emotional intensity, the rage and the stress, it is all there. However, he is quite unable to transcend his own image, of a self-conscious celebrity actor, when playing Aziz the underdog. His acting seems earnest but rehearsed.

Toofaan’s biggest flaw is its unoriginality. Even in its best moments, it looks like a shadow of much-superior movies. But the film finds some amount of redemption in its portrayal of the athlete’s relationship with the sport. He doesn’t accept defeat easily. Every time he is at the brim of a knockout, he stands up on his feet, ready to fight one more time. Besides the obvious personal undertow, Aziz is motivated by the sheer pleasure of hitting and punching. He takes an instant liking for the discipline, the techniques and the codes of conduct he has to follow. He finds the victories in the ring more intoxicating than the fights he has won on the street. This acknowledgement of the pleasure of indulging in sports is a minor yet significant achievement of Toofaan.

*****

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