It is not an exaggeration to say Bollywood boxing drama Toofaan has been put through the wringer by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite wrapping up filming before Covid-19-imposed lockdowns began in 2020, the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra-directed film has faced several hurdles with its release date, initially set for October last year.
Even after producers decided to forgo a theatrical release and put it out online earlier this year, a new May release date was sabotaged by a deadly second wave of Covid-19, which brought India to a halt.
Now, as the film finally looks set to see the light of day, releasing worldwide on Friday on Amazon Prime Video, its star and producer Farhan Akhtar takes a pragmatic view.
“As much as you feel saddened by the delay of things, you accept it,” Akhtar tells The National. “At the end of it all, you’re complaining about a film not being ready when the world is seeing turmoil like never before.
“At no point did I think ‘Why is this happening to me and to my film?’. There are too many people in a lot of pain and dealing with a lot of loss. And in the middle of it, me complaining about my film being delayed is too small.”
Akhtar reunites with acclaimed director Mehra for Toofaan, which means storm in Hindi, following their hit 2013 biographical film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, based on the life of the late Indian sprinter and Olympian Milkha Singh.
While both films are based on sports, they are worlds apart, the actor points out.
“They are two completely different films, [which is why] I had no apprehensions about signing up for the film,” he says.
“And to work with Rakeysh again on a film of this nature, it’s something that I really looked forward to. It’s rare that you find this kind of creative synergy with someone else.”
While little is known about Toofaan’s plot, Akhtar plays local man-turned-boxer Aziz Ali whose life is upended by various circumstances and who fights to regain his honour.
The actor, 47, who earlier made news for his physical transformation as runner Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, has again been praised for his looks in Toofaan.
“It’s not something that I go looking for,” Akhtar says of his physically demanding roles. “Stories drift towards you in a certain way, and if the role demands it I would do it, as long as I’m able to.
“You just want that honesty to be visible on screen. And unless you go through the grind and do it in the way it’s supposed to be done, it won’t feel like that.”
While Toofaan has been largely described as a sports film, it is much more than that, says Akhtar, and something very relevant for the current times.
“At the heart of it all, it’s a film that really stresses how important love is in the wounded times that we live,” he explains.
“The world on some level is currently going through chaos. Animosity and differences between people is at its highest. Lines seem to be drawn a lot more than ever before. And in this time, we felt it was important to tell the importance of understanding and respecting the other even though you may feel that they are different.
“There should be respect, there should be understanding, acceptance … our film talks about and touches upon all these things. It’s a film about love, juxtaposed against the backdrop of this violent sport.”
Hailing from a family of award-winning film talents, his father, Javed Akhtar, is one of India's most famous lyricists, while his mother, Honey Irani, is a screenwriter. Sister Zoya Akhtar is an award-winning film director, and stepmother Shabana Azmi is an acclaimed actress and activist.
Multi-hyphenate Farhan Akhtar first made his name as a director with the path-breaking 2001 film Dil Chahta Hai. His first acting role, in the 2008 musical Rock On!, also spurred his music career, which has taken him on tours across India.
Excel Entertainment, the production company he founded in 1999 with friend Ritesh Sidhwani, has been behind many critically acclaimed films, as well as TV shows such as Mirzapur, Inside Edge and Made in Heaven.
In 2012, Akhtar launched the social campaign Men Against Rape and Discrimination (its acronym Mard means "man" in Hindi) – to raise awareness about violence against women in India, with help from his Bollywood friends.
On the acting front, Akhtar will next be seen in a film by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker. While his own last directorial effort was the 2011 action flick Don 2, Akhtar says he’d like to get back behind the camera soon.
“If things had not gone the way they have, I probably would have directed a film at some point this year. But everything has been thrown off the rails so it’s all a bit up in the air. But I do intend on directing again soon,” he says.
“For now, I am excited to be working on a film with Ashutosh for the first time.”
While the pandemic has been a learning experience, Akhtar says he’s disappointed that some things have not changed.
“It’s made us realise how helpless we can be when we are faced with challenges and answers aren’t easy to come by. One would really hope, regardless of our differences, that people would really come together against a common enemy, and understand that irrespective of our skin colour or religion, whether we are rich or poor, we all are affected by the same thing.
“I was really hopeful that such an understanding would sink in, but I don’t think that has happened,” he says.
It’s the kind of message he hopes Toofaan will help spread.
“I would like people to take away a feeling of hope and positivity, of recognising the goodness in each other,” he says. “And that’s really what you want at the end of the day. You want people to get along and accept each other.”
Toofaan, starring Farhan Akhtar, Paresh Rawal and Mrunal Thakur, premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Friday.