In an early scene in Chak De India, a friend of former national hockey player Kabir Khan asks him to give himself a break for missing a penalty in a crucial game against Pakistan. “Ek galti toh sabko maaf hoti hai (everyone’s allowed one mistake),” he tells him. But Kabir, whose miss saw him labelled a traitor to his country, knows better. “Sabko?” he asks his friend with a thin smile, implying that Muslim athletes in India aren't dealt the get-out-of-jail card.
Fourteen years after Chak De India, at a time when being a Muslim public figure is more taxing than it’s ever been, Toofaan gives its protagonist, boxer Aziz Ali (Farhan Akhtar), a second chance. Whether this makes Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s film optimistic or unrealistic will depend on what you feel the state of the nation is. That Ali’s big mistake isn’t accompanied by a vicious media cycle focusing on his religion strikes me as the most utopian thing about the film.
Aziz starts the film as Ajju bhai, strongman of Dongri, a predominantly Muslim locality. He’s hired muscle for the local don, Jaffar bhai (Vijay Raaz), who rescued him when he was abandoned as a baby. The opening 30 minutes gives Aziz his Bachchan bona fides: he’s an orphan, a kindhearted street tough; he beats up a roomful of thugs after closing the door himself, like Bachchan does in Deewar (the writer of that film, Javed Akhtar, is on lyrics duty here). Later, when he chances upon a rooftop fight gym, he decides he wants to be “boxing ka Bachchan”.
Of course, he’s boxing’s Shashi Kapoor to start with, getting punched around by sparring partners and schooled by kids. His lot improves when he joins up with hard-ass boxing coach Nana Prabhu (Paresh Rawal). Mehra and screenwriter Anjum Rajabali gamble by making this otherwise conventional figure an open bigot; when it’s pointed out Aziz is from Dongri, not Dubai, he says, “What’s the difference?” Nevertheless, Prabhu takes the raw fighter under his wing, unaware that his daughter, Ananya (Mrunal Thakur), a doctor, is falling for a frequently banged-up patient—Aziz.
Nana’s bigoted worldview is emphasized at every turn, from avoiding Chinese food because it’s a Muslim eatery to actually saying things like “Hindu dharam sankat mein hai” and “love jihaad”. Even though he coaches Aziz to a state title and becomes fond of the boy, he recoils when he finds out his daughter and the boxer are in love. That the film doesn’t sugarcoat Nana’s noxiousness is worth noting—it's unusual for a mainstream Hindi film to go that far. But it’s a failure of imagination that Nana is presented as a lone bigot in the film. Indeed, there are more people willing to call him on his narrow-mindedness than there are fellow-Islamophobes.
Taken purely as a boxing movie, Toofaan is technically sound, narratively conventional. The fights are as persuasively choreographed as the ones in close-combat sports films like Dangal and Mukkabaaz, and a good sight better than the ones in Sultan and Brothers. Akhtar—whose ‘before’ body when he starts his comeback is Salman Khan’s ‘after’ body in Sultan—gives a solid account of himself against professional fighters playing Aziz’s opponents.
The one truly memorable fight is the state championship final, because it has its own arc: setback, regroup, re-strategize. What’s missing is something, anything, new to the boxing film subgenre. Toofaan hits every beat you expect it to, and a couple you hope it won’t (the corrupt official trope particular to Indian sports cinema needs retiring). The film is so generic that I couldn’t tell for sure if parts were nicked. It’s every boxing movie ever made.
Thakur would be perfectly watchable if the script didn’t require her to be a Sparky Hindi Film Heroine all the time. Vijay Maurya is drafted in to supply extra dialogue—he's probably responsible for the entertaining street talk from Aziz and his friend Munna (Hussain Dalal), though there's nothing like the fractious chemistry of Murad and Safeena from Gully Boy. Aziz and Ananya are from entirely different worlds, but you’d never guess that from seeing them together, which seems another failure of imagination on the film’s part. And a time jump of a few years finds Aziz a completely altered person—not a trace of Ajju bhai.
By the time Aziz’s redemption arc is underway, the film has taken too many shortcuts. Even Sultan, with all the burdens of being a Salman vehicle, found a convincing predicament to hang its comeback on. In Toofaan, pain feels too much like a plot device, a little convenient sadness so that bigots and boxers can have a second chance. For all its willingness to look at a fractured country, Mehra’s film badly wants good secular vibes to reassert themselves. When Aziz heads into his final bout, prayers are offered by a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim: a Manmohan Desai special. This is a film with an awareness of India's divisions. A pity it offers sentimental solutions.
Toofaan is streaming on Amazon Prime.