Farhan Akhtar lands 29 punches in two minutes in the opening fight sequence of Toofaan. None of them, however, happen within the ring. As a Mumbai street thug named Aziz Ali, he roughs up a local shopkeeper, then sends a picture of the man’s bruised face to his boss. Farhan—loose shirt, maroon trousers, gold watch—looks the part of an angry tough, but turns glum when a nurse details the exact nature of his trade. You can pretty much predict the next scene of him visiting an orphanage, full of luckless street kids like him. Aziz, the film must explain, has a serious case of gangster’s guilt.
The primary excitement around Toofaan has been the reunion, after eight years, of Farhan with director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Their 2013 film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, was a sports biopic with an epic scope; it jumped from Pakistan to Delhi to Melbourne and Rome. Toofaan, on the other hand, is a determinedly Mumbai film, with Aziz emerging from the ganglands of Dongri to become a serious contender. It’s essentially Rocky, with a bit of Southpaw, and half a dozen other boxing movies the makers can’t seem to think beyond. This sense of obviousness further dooms the film.
Aziz finds a mentor in Nana Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), the same gruffly dismissive coach who takes in the underdog. Prabhu’s daughter, Ananya (Mrunal Thakur), is the same doctor Aziz is falling for. I was expecting the dialogue writing to enliven the characters and subvert the clichés. However, Gully Boy’s Vijay Maurya can’t work the same magic here, with Ananya given lines like ‘Everybody has a choice’ and Aziz sounding alternatively cocky and plainspoken.
“Aunty my god holy Jesus blood is coming” is the best that Hussain Dalal, as Aziz’s best friend, can do, which isn’t saying much. Around halfway through the journey, Toofaan finds its pulse. Prabhu’s bigotry forces Ananya to leave home for Aziz; an interreligious- couple in Mumbai, they struggle to find a home in the city. The mood shifts from a boxing drama to an emotional love story.
Mehra has always excelled with romances, and here he gets ample support from composers Shankar-Ehsaan- Loy. The song ‘Ananya’, a beautiful acoustic number voiced by Arijit Singh, comes as a delight in the hardedged narrative. But the romantic idyll doesn’t last, as the film skips five years and finds Aziz squirming out of a fixing scandal to stage a comeback. The boxing itself is uninteresting and lacks propulsion. Cinematographer Jay Oza shoots the inring action fluidly, but is let down by the annoying commentary that plays over the fights.
While Farhan sweats it out with gusto, there’s a stiffness to his movements, far less enjoyable than the wiry physicality he cracked as Milkha Singh. Mostly, though, I blame Anjum Rajabali’s script for the heaviness. Rawal’s dry, measured performance would have been enjoyable in a different film; here, it’s spent in service of broad melodrama. There is one memorable image near the end. As Aziz fights his big fight, we see members of his old gang in Mumbai. They watch him silently on TV, in clean, colourful clothes, no street brawl or ruckus in sight. Aziz may not change the world, but he’s certainly changed his mates.
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Cast: Farhan Akhtar, Mrunal Thakur, Paresh Rawal, Hussain Dalal, Darshan Kumar, SupriyaPathak
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video