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Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra: The sweet science

The 'Toofaan' director on why he hopes his new film is a soothing balm for a wounded nation

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra shooting 'Toofaan'

Two decades after his debut feature, Aks, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is ready with his seventh movie and his second sports-based drama. In 2013, along with actor Farhan Akhtar, Mehra helmed Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a biopic on the life of athlete Milkha Singh. Now Akhtar and Mehra have reunited for Toofaan, a fictional story about a boxer named Aziz Ali. In his brief filmography, Mehra’s most celebrated works are the National Award-winning Rang De Basanti (2006) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Mehra spoke to Mint Lounge about crafting a boxing drama and his process for visualizing a film.

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‘Toofaan’ came to you as a story conceptualised by Farhan Akhtar, with Anjum Rajabali shaping the script and screenplay. In what way did you influence the script?

Farhan and I really enjoyed our journey on Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, including the love, critical acclaim and box office returns the film got. Since then there has been a want and hunger to work with each other. Farhan and I were keen to raise the bar for ourselves so when he shared the thought behind Toofaan I said the story is talking to me. I can have a conversation with the story, so let’s do it and give it all we have.

Then I had a detailed narration with Anjum [Rajabali] who elaborated on the story idea and screenplay. Some months of development followed because the director has to make the story her or his own. Then the journey continued with Vijay Maurya, who added to the screenplay and dialogue and sprinkled gold dust all over. Later, the cast and crew interpreted the script in their own way and owned it. Actors Farhan, Mrunal Thakur, Paresh Rawal, Hussain Dalal, plus all those behind the camera, came together with one vision.

What were some things you had to keep in mind when shooting a boxing/sports drama?

There is no rulebook for this. I approach filmmaking very organically. First the story really needs to resonate with me. Then I completely dive into the screenplay. For me, filmmaking begins when I work on the screenplay. That’s when I started seeing the film.

I need to be able to shut my eyes and see the entire film backwards. Until I can do that, I won’t start the film. Boxing in particular was extremely new to me. I have not been a fan of the sport so it became very important that I understand boxing and in order to do that you have to understand the sportsman or sportswoman.

Did you take on some research into the sport and the psyche of the boxer?

My research included speaking to a lot of boxers at state and national level as well as international boxers. I read biographies of boxers and I watched a lot of documentaries. They taught me a lot about the fighters and the Ring Warriors, as they are called. I didn’t see movies on boxing.

Very early in the day I understood that boxing is not a rich man’s sport, even though the prize money is wow. In America, which is the Mecca for boxing, the fighters come from neighbourhoods like the Bronx, or outside of New Orleans and Chicago. They have faced racial discrimination, class discrimination. They have faced abuse. They also come from Cuba and Russia, from a village in Haryana and a forgotten town in the northeast of India. Then I realised, boxing is not just a sport—it is an expression. It is their way of fighting back into life. I brought all that back into the character of Aziz Ali.

What did it require to create the frenzy and excitement of what happens in the ring? Given that boxing is a violent contact sport, was there a focus on designing the fights, rehearsal and choreography?

I must give full marks to Farhan for his effort and dedicated approach. Boxing is a contact sport, but more importantly you should know how to take pain. More than giving the hits, you should be able to take the punches. And in the end all that matters is the last man standing in the ring.

So we did boxing training for Farhan first and then I decided that he would not fight another actor but only real boxers from the national level or pro boxers on the international circuit. With choreographed boxing you don’t actually hurt your opponent, but that only happens 50 percent of the time. The rest of the time you are actually giving and taking the hits. We needed to be very alert because you cannot have actors do those takes again and again. It is exhausting for them.

We were blessed to have Darrell Foster, a former boxer, on our team. He used to be in the corner for former world champion Sugar Ray Leonard and has choreographed some of the best boxing films in Hollywood, including Ali and Bleed for This. He held the camps and more than teaching Farhan how to box, it was teaching the real professional boxers—whose natural instinct is to hit—how to act. All I had to do was film.

You recently said that if you put your previous films 'Rang De Basanti' and 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' into a mixer grinder you get 'Toofaan'. What did you mean by that?

For me a film is very personal. Rang De Basanti was partly autobiographical, about my college days, and the bigger picture was about the socio-political situation in the country. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was a response to my affinity for sports but also while growing up Milkha Singh was a larger than life hero. Also, growing up in Delhi, I had heard stories about Partition. I have lived in Partition rehabilitation colonies like Lajpat Nagar.

These films reflected two very different times in my life. Milkha Singh was fighting with his own demons. Rang De Basanti was about an expression. The things I was trying to say in that film find a manifestation and a completion in Toofaan.

Toofaan presented me with a mix of these films. It has a huge socio-political relevance in today’s times. Lately I have been feeling that we are nurturing a lot of wounds. We are making ourselves suffer a lot. In Toofaan I found a very soothing balm, which I hope we can apply over these open wounds and get on with life.

Toofaan will stream on Amazon Prime Video from 16 July.

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.

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