Cast: Farhan Akhtar, Mrunal Thakur, Paresh Rawal, Vijay Raaz, Sonali Kulkarni
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Rating: 2 stars
A Dongri gangster stumbles upon boxing. He takes to the sport like fish to water. Under the tutelage of "Mumbai's best coach", he evolves quickly, shaves off his beard and severs all links with the underworld. A flurry of knockouts later, he is crowned the champion of Maharashtra.
This isn't where the Farhan Akhtar starrer Toofaan ends. In fact, the 160-minute film is still shy of the halfway mark when the protagonist is hailed as an unknown streetfighter rewriting history. Beyond his initial triumphs, boxer Aziz Ali's path is strewn with many a hurdle.
The second half of Toofaan is devoted to the personal battles the man must fight in order to be whole-heartedly accepted by his Muslim-baiting coach Narayan "Nana" Prabhu (Paresh Rawal). And that is another story and it pans out along entirely predictable and highly problematic lines.
Toofaan isn't the gusty, pulsating, sweat-soaked boxing drama that the teaser led us to believe it would be. Not only is the film overlong, it meanders rather listlessly for the most part despite the explosive boxing action choregraphed and filmed with a fair degree of panache.
A formulaic plot punctuated with misplaced musical set pieces (that merely add to the length of the film) and storytelling conventions that reek of obsolescence undermines the impact of this chronicle of a foundling raised by a gang lord (Vijay Raaz in a special appearance).
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Toofaan isn't only about winning and losing - be it in life or in the boxing ring - although the anthemic rap number (Todun Taak) that accompanies the hero's rapid transformation from a strong and energetic street-brawler to a technically sound pugilist invokes an old-school, never-say-die variety of heroism.
The Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra film is, importantly and subliminally, about the taming of a troublesome Muslim youth and bringing him in line with majoritarian principles. It isn't enough for Aziz Ali to secure a boxing license from the federation: he, on cue, has to chant "Jai Hanuman" - the coach's pet refrain - before every bout to be accepted into the fold.
Toofaan - the film gets its title from the nickname the coach gives his new ward - plays down the hero's religious identity (except when he is at the receiving end of Muslim-bashing) and supplants it with the behavioural features of the cussed coach, a devout Hindu who wears his fervour on his sleeve.
Aziz Ali the boxer not only pummels a steady procession of opponents (none of them Muslim) in the ring, off it he falls in love with a woman from the majority community. The girl is his coach's daughter, no less. How dare he? Aziz Ali is down for the count. He must now work his way back into the good books of his coach. A tall order that!
When the father discovers the truth about the inter-faith liaison, he blows his top. The daughter, Ananya (Mrunal Thakur), a doctor in a charity hospital, walks out on him. No room for any surprises there because, like in the case of most of the other key twists in the film, Toofaan provides enough early pointers to how Nana Prabhu is going to react to his daughter's intransigence.
On a number of occasions, Nana Prabhu vocalises the vitriol festering within him. He puts his foot down when his neighbour and drinking mate (Mohan Agashe) suggests they order dinner from a Muslim takeaway joint. The latter calls out Prabhu's appalling narrow-mindedness. Unfazed, Prabhu seeks to claim brownie points for grooming a Muslim streetfighter from Dongri into a state boxing champion.
See how generous I am, Prabhu implies. "Kya farq padta hai Dongri ka ho ya Dadar ka," retorts the friend, the voice of reason in their whisky-fuelled debates. All very well, but what Toofaan appears to do is normalise Nana Prabhu's bigotry by attributing it to a terror-linked tragedy that befell his family, as if a supremacist needs a reason for othering a community.
Something akin to a balancing act is performed by the man's only offspring who, too, has the same reason as her father to be full of hate and bias. She does not, however, let the past cloud her opinion about an entire community. The point to be noted here, and Ananya herself underlines it, is that she was only eight years old when the incident occurred, too young to feel pain or anger.
On the face of it, the fact that Aziz Ali does not fight under the national flag nor are his thumping triumphs aimed at arousing patriotic emotions might seem subversive, even radical. But scratch the surface and there is something insidious going on here. Aziz Ali does not fight for collective glory but for his Hindu wife and the approbation of his intolerant father-in-law. He has to first pass the assimilation test. National pride can wait.
Farhan Akhtar, to whom the film's story idea is credited, delivers a credible performance. Mrunal Thakur is saddled with a character whose transition from being assertively proactive in the first half to becoming merely reactive in the second is riddled with inconsistencies.
Casting Paresh Rawal as a mean boxing coach isn't such a great idea but the actor does his best to tide over the lacuna. Worse, why does Supriya Pathak Kapur, playing a matronly nurse, have to be reduced to a shadow of Lalita Pawar's Mrs. D'Sa from over six decades ago? Not done.
In terms of plot and character development, Toofaan dabbles unabashedly in the facile. Aziz Ali's discovery of boxing, which comes about for no apparent reason other than the need to jumpstart the story, is contrived. The action in the ring, filmed well enough by cinematographer Jay Oza, also errs on the side of excess.
The boxers on show keep falling like nine pins. Toofaan would have us believe that knockouts are the norm in amateur boxing. One 'unbeatable' opponent that Aziz Ali comes up against late in the film, a vapidly voluble ringside commentator tells us, has KO-ed his last 40 opponents. Granted that bodies hitting the canvas yield visually more exciting footage than boxing contests being decided on points would. But a little bit of balance has never done anybody any harm.
Just as unconvincing is Aziz Ali's falling in love with the lady doctor that he visits with injuries suffered in a brawl. The doctor, dismissive at first, has a change of heart simply because she sees another side of Aziz Ali's brash character.
And for the final plunge, all that needs to happen is for Aziz to make the right choice when Ananya asks him to choose one of two fingers that she raises - the first denotes Ajju Bhai the gangster, the second Aziz Ali the boxer, she says. She asks: Which of the two men do you want to be? There is obviously no confusion in Aziz Ali's mind.
Unfortunately, Toofaan is disturbingly confounding fare. It is a movie that thinks it is making the right noises. It isn't. Its bigger punches are all below the belt.