When Aziz Ali (Farhan Akhtar), the star-eyed gangster in the heart of “Toofaan”, first stumbles upon videos of Muhammad Ali, he became hooked. While it goes unrecognized, the allure is clearly not just the boxer’s athletic art – it’s also the name he chose. For our hero, Ali is one of his.
This surname, and the faith it represents, becomes the albatross around Aziz’s neck. In “Toofaan,” Bollywood director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra attempts – with some success – to delve into the standard sports drama with socio-political conflicts ripped from Indian headlines. Aziz, from a lower-class Muslim neighborhood in Mumbai, finds himself imbued with a new goal when he is taken on by top boxing coach Nana Prabhu (a superbly engaged Paresh Rawal). The grizzled mentor carves his over-enthusiastic pupil into a formidable talent: a “toofaan” (storm).
Nana is a pious Hindu whose grief over losing his wife in a terrorist attack has turned into Islamophobia. His passion for the sport transcends his faith, but only to a limit. When he finds out that Aziz is dating his daughter, Ananya (Mrunal Thakur), he kicks them both out. “Toofaan” takes a surprisingly gritty turn at this point, moving from clever fight montages to scenes of Aziz and Ananya’s struggle to live as an interfaith couple in Mumbai – a city where cosmopolitanism coexists with crass bigotry.
This brief part of the film is the best: life-size, adapted to everyday urban realities, and courageously blunt in its portrayal of prejudice. But Mehra takes the easy way out with a tragic and contrived twist that takes the film back into its second half on the well-beaten path of the tarnished athlete struggling to reclaim his honor.
Unclassified. In Hindi and Marathi, with subtitles. Duration: 2 hours 43 minutes. Look on Amazon.