The idea for the story of Toofaan is credited to co-producer and lead actor Farhan Akhtar, not even a nod to Hollywood’s boxing saga Rocky (1976).
Rakysh Omprakash Mehra and Akhtar had earlier worked together on Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, an inspiring biopic of the great athlete Milkha Singh. More than the film itself, what was written about was the actor’s astonishing physical transformation into a sleek runner. This vanity seems to be the biggest—if not sole—reason to produce another sports saga; to prove that a 47-year-old actor can achieve the chiseled body of a sportsman at least twenty years younger. It requires discipline and dedication, but does it make for enjoyable cinema? It’s a debatable point, since a too-long Toofaan (scripted by Anjum Rajabali and Vijay Maurya) tries to blend a predictable underdog-to-achiever plot with an anti-communalism message, with mixed results. There are scenes that stand out, but they do not come together into a satisfying whole.
Like Rocky who was a collector for a loan shark, Aziz Ali (Akhtar) is a vasooli man for Dongri don Jaffarbhai (Vijay Raaz), with a loyal sidekick Munna (Husain Dalal). He was an orphan, taken in by the gangster, so pays back by looking after a bunch of kids in an orphanage. He is proud of his skills as a fighter, but is shown soon enough, during a casual bout with a boxing student, that technique and training is required too.
His encounter with Dr Ananya Prabhu (Mrunal Thakur), who works in a charity hospital and treats an “extortionist” with contempt, leads him to the great coach Nana Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), who first refuses to train him, then whips him into slogging to win a state championship. His success earns him the sobriquet Toofaan (Storm). (Does boxing have this kind of popularity in India? Sad, but hardly any but the most devoted fan of the sport would even know the name of the state champion, cricket sucks up all the oxygen of media attention and money.)
Nana hates Muslims, because his wife (Sonali Kulkarni in a tiny cameo) was killed in the Mumbai bomb blasts, and openly expresses his bigotry to his best friend Bala (Mohan Agashe)—it is a treat to see these two great actors in the same frame!
Of course, Aziz and Ananya fall in love–only in films can it happen that a guy does not make the connection between two people with the same surname! Nana blows a fuse when he finds out Aziz is dating his daughter, and throws her out of the house.
There is no place to rent in Mumbai for a Hindu-Muslim couple; in desperation Aziz throws a fight for money and is barred from boxing for five years. The problem is too easily solved, however, when Ananya’s nurse Mrs D’Souza (Supriya Pathak in a thankless role) offers them a room to rent, and also her services as a babysitter for their daughter Myra (Gauri Phulka).
With Jafferbhai giving him no trouble, Aziz starts a rental car business, gets a dad bod, and looks content; then Ananya is killed in a stampede—Mehra uses the real-life Dadar-Matunga rail bridge tragedy. She had gone to fetch his boxing license and Aziz now feels compelled to win his honour back for her sake.
The national championships are three months away, and Aziz is out of shape. But he is meant to be a hero, so of course, he burns all the flab, and the audience has to watch another round of his fitness struggle. Does he win is not even a valid question in a film like this. (Again, looking at his ferocious opponent, one wonders why in our sports movies the rival of the hero must be painted in a villainous light. The other guy must have also trained and worked hard to reach the finals—it just so happens that the story is not being told from his point of view).
The songs fit uneasily into the narrative, and for viewers who don’t care for boxing, too many bouts with fists landing and blood spurting in slo-mo make one reach for the fast forward button. However, Mumbai in all its splendor and squalor is captured by Jay Oza. The good thing also is that Farhan Akhtar has grown into a much better actor, though not yet capable of stealing a scene from Paresh Rawal, who wears Nana Prabhu like custom-made boxing gloves. In the next film, Akhtar could maybe, keep his shirt on and let the audience see his soul.