The Farhan Akhtar interview | 'Glad Toofan is releasing at a time when people are finding their way back to normalcy'
'I have immense faith in the ability of Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra to tell a story in an amazingly profound way. As a director myself, I don't want to come into his way,' says Farhan Akhtar ahead of his boxing film Toofan.
Twenty years ago, Farhan Akhtar made his debut as a director with the groundbreaking Dil Chahta Hai. Years later, he debuted as an actor with Abhishek Kapoor's Rock On!! (2008), and has chosen to tread on that path since. Before he returns to direction again with a film co-written by his sister Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, he reunites with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra for another sports drama, Toofan.
Below are edited excerpts from an interaction with the actor-director, where he discusses getting into the boxing ring, the beats of a sports drama, and how Toofan is different.
Toofan is your second sports drama after Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The sport at the focal point here is boxing, as opposed to sprinting. How differently did you aim to shape your physicality for this one?
Without getting into the details of workout routines, because that can be quite boring, the only thing I can say is that it was more demanding for sure. Apart from the physical side of it, just mentally to get through it was challenging because it was really having to learn and internalise, and be absolutely naturalised, in the discipline of boxing within a span of seven to eight months.
It was challenging but we do what we do because it excites us on some level. That's really what it was. At no point did I think I'd taken on too much as exhausting as it was, and as many times as I had to lie down and catch my breath, especially when we first started. It's really a very demanding sport. We're so used to watching people do it so well on TV that we don't realise that it's as difficult as it actually is. So newfound respect for all boxers in the world over.
That sounds draining physically and mentally. Was it as emotionally draining? Did you find yourself caged in the same ring after completing the filming?
We finished shooting roughly four days before the first lockdown happened. I was actually just stuck in that character. I had nobody to talk to or nothing to move on to. I was just at home, in the potbellied look you see in the trailer, with all gyms closed (laughs). I had to live with this character way longer than I'd chosen to otherwise. That's why there was a bit of a hangover. I did get to mourn this character for longer. Because I had to live with him. I had no choice. But given the intensity of the experience itself, I do think it was natural for that to happen. Leading up to the wrap of the film, it was one-and-a-half years, if not a little bit more, dedicated to this one film and this one character.
Irrespective of the situation, that pot-bellied look is not something a lot of actors would take on for a film. Did you consider going the prosthetic way?
Neither I nor Rakeysh wanted to take a shortcut for that part of the film. If you're showing the journey of a person, then you have to go through the same journey at some level. Whatever weight you see on me in the film, I've put it on with great difficulty. I had three months to do that. So whatever I could get my hands on, I'd eat that. Honestly, it was fun only for the first 10 days. After that, you realise you don't need to eat so much (laughs). But yes, everyone else on set was having a feast. And I was sitting in the corner having broccoli and grilled chicken.
As a storyteller, what do you think makes the sports drama genre find so many takers in Indian cinema?
The most important thing to realise is that any spots film isn't about the sport per se. It's about the struggles of the people or the person who are represented via that sport. As long as that human conflict is relatable and the drama is believable, I think that's what's important. The sport becomes the backdrop. The story is really a human story.
But these films follow a certain trajectory when it comes to the screenplay. How do you think Toofan stands out?
As I said, boxing is only an aspect of the film. There's a purpose to every defeat and victory in the film. There's a lot more in the film that will reveal itself. I'm not at liberty to talk about it in detail right now. The journey of the three primary characters, played by Mrunal (Thakur), Paresh Rawal, and me, and how they tie with each towards the resolution, is the heart of the film. And that's not predictable.
And the journey of a film isn't about the end. When it's a love story, you know the couple will get together. When it's a good vs evil film, you know the good will trump evil. You know if there's a mystery, it will be solved. But how do you get there? How interesting and emotionally moving is that journey? Hopefully, this film will make you feel all that.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is undoubtedly a memorable film. With the recent unfortunate demise of Milkha Singh, it is being re-watched and celebrated again. Are you sceptical that the legacy of the film, which is now larger than ever before, could eclipse the performance of Toofan?
I don't know. Honestly, it's not my job to stop and think about this. You want to be true to what's being asked of you in this film. And that's all that's important. How it resonates with people, whether they do or don't compare to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which is an amazing film Rakeysh made, that's for others to decide. For me personally, it was important that we make the best possible film we can, and I as an actor, do what I can possibly do to bring this character to life. The rest will be for you to decide.
I also bring up the comparison because the trailer of Toofan hints at the theme of reconciliation with one's past, which was the primary undercurrent of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Do you see that point of commonality?
It's very different. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, it was really about reconciling, making peace with his past, that's true. In Toofan, it's not about that as much. It's more about fulfilling a promise made to oneself. There's a slight difference.
It has been 20 years since you made your debut in the Hindi film industry. Since you worked in the capacity of a filmmaker for the first seven years, how did you manage to compartmentalise your jobs as a director and an actor after that? Rakeysh Mehra has a very strong directorial voice and vision. How do you ensure you do not get into the way of that as a director yourself?
This is the second film I'm doing with Rakeysh. I feel from the first film to this one, our relationship as collaborators has only gotten stronger. I have absolute faith and trust in his ability to tell a story in an amazingly profound way. And I don't want to come in the way of that.
I want to do my job, with his help, and with him gladly giving me the space and freedom to do it the way I want to. In turn, he deserves that same respect and generosity from me.
That's why it works so well. We don't get into each other's ways unless we absolutely have to.
You have enjoyed a decent run with Amazon Prime Video India as a producer. The Inside Edge by your production banner Excel Entertainment was their first Original in 2017, and will soon return with a third season. Mirzapur and Made in Heaven have also been received widely and warmly. How excited are you to make your digital debut as an actor with the platform?
I couldn't have asked for a better debut. And I couldn't have asked for it to happen with people who are more excited than probably we are to get the film out there. The Amazon team really believe in the film, and are going out of their way to push this film across all territories they're present in. I'm very thankful to them. Given how things stand, it's really great that people can watch our film from wherever they are. As a creative professional, what I'm greedy for is people to watch my film. Even if two people watch it, it feels great. If people in over 200 countries watch it, far better.
Your last film as an actor was Shonali Bose's The Sky Is Pink in September 2019. Toofan has had its fair share of pushes. Did the wait test your patience before you could reenter the ring so to speak?
I'm just very excited at this time. The film was ready, and we were going to get it out in November last year. Then it got pushed to May, and now, it's finally coming out in July. Obviously pushed for all the right reasons. There was no environment to put out a film and celebrate when there were so much pain out there. But I feel now is a time when people are finding their way back towards normalcy. And we're just hoping this film can give them that smile, and that faith and optimism because that's what the film also does.
Toofan will premiere on Amazon Prime Video India this Friday on 16 July.
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