This week, Bollywood star Farhan Akhtar revealed footage showing the extent of his physical transformation to play the role of a deformed gangster turned professional boxer. The change, which he underwent in just over a year to star in a sports drama Toofaan, could easily compete with Hollywood shapeshifters Mark Wahlberg or Christian Bale.
The Mumbai-based actor – also a director, screenwriter, singer, producer and TV host – has a habit of choosing projects that contain an element of surprise. Still, he certainly seems to enjoy playing the underdog, as he did in a series of blockbusters, including the physically demanding role of Indian track sprinter Milkha Singh, in 2013. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The film grossed $ 1.03 billion (£ 883 million) at the global box office – eight years later it plays Aziz Ali, a low-life who turns a new leaf to become a boxing champion, after to have fallen in love with a Hindu woman.
Speaking from a luxurious bungalow in Mumbai, where he lives with his girlfriend, singer Shibani Dandekar, the 47-year-old explains that physical transformations in cinema are no easy task. “Boxing is an extremely demanding sport,” he says. “We trained six days a week and five hours a day. We got a lot of work done in a short period of time – my trainer, Drew Neal (himself a former kickboxing champion and now a personal trainer to the stars in India), mentioned that four years of work is crammed into one year.
Although generally well received, the film has sparked some controversy as it portrays an interfaith relationship between a Hindu woman and the character of Akhtar, who is a Muslim. It is at a time when some Indian states have proposed laws against the so-called “jihad of love,” an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that claims that Muslim men conspire to convert Hindu women through marriage. In India, many states led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have started to consider laws designed to prevent “forced conversions” by “jihad of love”, while authorities stop Hindu-Muslim marriages. and ask couples and their families to seek “permission from the district magistrate” first. Local BJP politician Manish Singh recently tweeted that Toofaan should be banned in the country as it goes “against our culture and our dharma (divine law)”.
“I don’t know what the problem is [when it comes to marriage between a Hindu and Muslim] that’s why I find it strange, ”Akhtar says.
“There are things in the world that we will not like, there has always been negativity, there has always been division, there has always been fear of the other, there is always had some sort of resentment or suspicion towards people who are not exactly like you. “What to do?” We can either be frustrated, angry, feel helpless or bitter about it, ”he replies,“ or we can try to show people the importance of acceptance and the importance of love. This is what we hope to do through this film. Fans can come closer Toofaan like a sports drama, but Akhtar thinks it also focuses on “accepting people with their differences for who they are”.
While he was already familiar with the themes of the film, he found Toofaan gave him a new appreciation for real-life sportspeople and the issues they face in the world. “They have dedicated their lives to sport,” he says, noting that it is “not an easy choice” in many countries. His comments come amid an argument over the European Beach Volleyball Championship, in which the Norwegian team faces fines for refusing to wear bikini bottoms. The team complained that the outfits made them feel unnecessarily sexualized. While not citing any particular sport or organization, Akhtar suggests that some public authorities are lagging behind when it comes to “respecting” and “caring” for their athletes.
Akhtar was so passionate about the subject of his film, he reveals, that it was he who went to see director Rakeysh Mehra with the story of Toofaan. “It was an idea that I had in mind for a while,” he says. “Finally, I collaborated with [Indian screenwriter] Anjum Rajabali who made it into a full screenplay, and we brought it to Rakeysh.
“Rakeysh got it all and got what we were trying to say in this movie and in 20 minutes he was ready to do it.”
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Cinemas in India are still closed due to the ongoing pandemic, which means Toofaan will premiere on Amazon Prime Video, something that was practically unthinkable before the virus took hold. But Akhtar sees the release in a positive light, hoping it will therefore reach audiences around the world on its first day. “Who would have thought this was possible five years ago? ” he asks.
Taking a summer blockbuster like Toofaan direct to streaming, Akhtar certainly pushes the boundaries. And there are already rumors of another big step from here: Earlier this year there were a number of reports suggesting the actor flew to Bangkok to work on a mysterious new Marvel Studios project.
When asked if he could confirm details, Akhtar responded with a smile that he could “neither confirm nor deny” his role in an MCU project. Now that would be a transformation to marvel.