It’s almost become fashionable to demand a boycott for an actor’s film or web series, even before their work is released to the public. Bollywood actor Farhan Akthar’s latest sporting drama ‘Toofan’ (‘Storm’), directed by Rakeysh OmPrakash Mehra, was no different.
Calls for boycott of ‘Toofan’ intensified in the run up to its release on July 16 on Amazon Prime Video because a section of faceless social media users felt that his movie allegedly promoted the idea of a Muslim hero preying on a Hindu heroine to convert her. To put things in perspective, ‘Toofan’ is a sports drama that chronicles the journey of Aziz Ali and his resurgence as a boxer who fights class divides and the unequal world to emerge a champion.
Actress Mrunal Thakur plays the Hindu character Ananya who’s his biggest cheerleader. But should art be bound by such expectations and rules, we asked Akhtar.
“Art has no boundaries, borders, or no language. If it’s a story that moves you — whether it is in English, Hindi, Arabic, or Spanish, you will connect to it. Emotions like pain and laughter are universal. That’s all we need to focus on. We just need to tell good stories and life will continue in the way it has to and we do what we have to do,” said Akhtar.
In boxing parlance, he’s ducked out of the sticky question like a true-blue professional who says a lot, without saying a lot.
But he’s game to answer all else. As his film gears up for its world premiere on Amazon Prime Video on July 14, we talk to the cast of ‘Toofan’, their process, and the challenge behind putting in years into a film. Excerpts from our interview with Akhtar:
Boxers are often portrayed as underdogs who aren’t dealt a fair hand in life. Does your character in ‘Toofan’ fall into that bracket?
As far as life is concerned, the character I play is an underdog. We have all grown up on a steady host of sporting films and they all have this amazing potential to inspire and motivate us.
You set aside eight months of your life just to train for this role. Are you a method actor?
I won’t go as far as to say that [I am a method actor]. But this film required a certain amount of absolute focus and dedication for that period. It took us about eight months to train to be a boxer till we began shooting. I had to work hard to get into that boxer mindset. But once your mind starts opening up and learns to cope with the demands of that sport, everything else follows.
I didn’t get into the mindset that I want to just look like a boxer, I wanted to attain this mindset where I am the boxer. So my training wasn’t just about the physical aesthetic. It was really about if I entered the ring and I had to fight with someone, would I be able to do it? I worked with an incredible boxing coach and trainer Drew Neal and then with Darrell Foster [who sculpted Will Smith’s body for his role as Muhammad Ali in the biopic ‘Ali’] who came in later to step up my training and do the choreography for this film. When I entered the ring in this film, I was up against real boxers and I wanted them to know that they are up against an opponent who takes it as seriously as them.
Did you feel vulnerable when you were in the ring because boxing is a bloody, contact sport?
All of us have vulnerabilities, but when you go into the ring that is not what you want to project at all. You want to project this feeling that you belong there and that ring belongs to you and not the other person who dared to step in while you are there. And I had to work towards that mindset. There’s a lot more to boxing than just the physical aspect of going in and beating someone up or getting beaten up. You have to fight through personal demons and you have to fight the pain — physical and emotional. I remember Darrel telling me that’s what creates a warrior’s mentality. No matter what the odds are, you must have that courage and the will to get up and fight.
Did the role change you as an actor or a person?
It has been a very personal experience because when you put yourself through the grind, it’s difficult to come out as the same person that you were before. You will have evolved or metamorphosed into something new and different. And, that’s bound to happen, but what the effect of it is — only time will tell.
But to draw a parallel when I worked on ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ I felt it was challenging. But that film left me with a certain sense of self-belief and I inherited that from Milkha ji [late iconic athlete]. He made me believe that if you honestly throw yourself into your work and you are willing to work as hard as it takes with absolute sincerity and honesty of purpose, you will always succeed. You will create some impact and that is what I learnt from working on that film. And that helped me while working on ‘Toofan’ where I had to play a boxer. I didn’t have a question mark over my head like I did when I got into training for being Milka wondering if will be able to do it. With ‘Toofan’, I had been through it, learning through the man himself and his real-life experiences.
So ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ was a dress rehearsal of sorts …
No, I wouldn’t call it a dress rehearsal. It was the main event.
So actors can’t fake it or are they just great at faking it? One of the most endearing parts about you is that you seem earnest and convincing in every role that you take on ...
A: If you think about it, an actor is always faking it at the heart of it all. But the important thing is to do it in a way that seems believable to you. As an actor, you have to empathise with the character that you are playing and you have to become that person for that period. It’s your so-called craft that leads you to that place. You are just the edifice or that structural building where screws and nails are being hammered. But once you have created that edifice, the people who come and live there can be unpredictable. The edifice is false, but the emotions and experience must ideally come from a real place.
Are audiences more forgiving when they watch content at home?
No, the audience is not forgiving at all. They are a lot more forgiving when they go to the theatre because when you go to a theatre you have already put a lot of effort into getting there. You have spent your hard-earned money on buying a ticket and you have created time in advance to watch it, so rarely do you get up and leave. Since you bought the popcorn and drink, you might just sit through it.
At home, if you don’t like something within a second it’s gone and for us actors, that feels more unforgiving. Now, content is coming to the fore with the Over-The-Top viewing because people just don’t have the patience now … The last 18 months have made my fraternity and industry introspect as to what people are watching and are enjoying. Platforms like Amazon Prime have made entertainment very equitable. You cannot get by on just star power on an OTT. You can’t by claiming you got a great opening or tom-tom box office numbers to say a film is good. The only thing that works now is engaging content … Entertainment for the sake of entertainment won’t cut it anymore.
Her role in ‘Toofan’: I play Ananya who’s not just a catalyst in the transformation of Ajju into the boxer Aziz Ali. She’s an independent girl who takes her own decisions in her life. She has experienced sorrow and pain in her life, but she’s a positive soul. She believes her aim in life is to bring a smile on people’s life ... She believes that if Ajju’s life is about breaking bones in the ring, her job is to sew them together. I am happy that such confident roles are being written for female actors now. She’s not just a pretty face who dances around trees or on call to be a part of la la la moments.”
The biggest support system in her life and career: “I am here acting in ‘Toofan’ because of my sister. She has been my biggest support system and she’s such a badass too.”
Her biggest learning in the pandemic: “During this pandemic, lots of people are going through break ups and stuff ... They are all going through an emotional turmoil. Remember, it’s OK to feel those emotions because we are humans and not robots. So, just give yourself some time do not lose faith in yourself ... And, don’t wait for the ‘toofan’ [storm], be the toofan.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Toofan’ is out on Amazon Prime Video on July 16.