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This week Bollywood star Farhan Akhtar revealed images showing the extent of his physical transformation to play the role of an out-of-shape gangster turned professional boxer. The change, which he underwent in little more than a year to star in sports-drama feature Toofaan, could easily rival the likes of Hollywood shape-shifters Mark Wahlberg or Christian Bale.
The Mumbai-based actor – also a director, screenwriter, singer, producer and TV host – makes a habit of choosing projects that contain an element of surprise. Yet he certainly seems to enjoy playing the underdog, as he has done in a series of blockbusters, including the physically demanding role of Indian track and field sprinter Milkha Singh, in 2013’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The film took in $1.03bn (£883m) at the global box office – eight years later, he plays Aziz Ali, a low-life who turns over a new leaf to become a champion boxer, after falling 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 film are no mean feat. “Boxing is an extremely demanding sport,” he says. “We were training six days a week, and five hours every day. We were cramming in a lot of work in a short period of time – my trainer, Drew Neal (himself a former champion kickboxer and now personal trainer to the stars in India), mentioned that four years of work were crammed into one year.”
Though generally well-received, the film has been met with some controversy because it portrays an interfaith relationship between a Hindu woman and Akhtar’s character, who is Muslim. This is at a time when some states in India have brought forward laws against so-called “love jihad”, an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are scheming to convert Hindu women through marriage. In India, many Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled (BJP) states have begun mulling over laws designed to prevent “forcible conversions” through “love jihad”, while authorities are stopping Hindu-Muslim marriages and asking the couples and their families to seek “clearance from the district magistrate” first. A local BJP politician, Manish Singh, recently tweeted that Toofaan should be banned in the country as it goes “against our culture and dharma (divine law)”.
“I don’t know what the issue is [when it comes to marriage between a Hindu and Muslim] so that’s why I find it strange,” Akhtar says.
“There are things in the world that we won’t like, there’s always been negativity, there’s always been divisiveness, there’s always been fear of the other, there’s always been some kind of resentment or suspicion of people who are not exactly like you.” What to do? “We can either get frustrated, be angry, feel helpless or be bitter about it,” he answers, “or we can try to show people the importance of acceptance, and the importance of love. That’s what we are hoping to do through this film.” Fans may approach Toofaan as a sports drama, but Akhtar believes it focuses equally on “accepting people with their differences for who they are”.
While he was already familiar with the film’s themes, he did find Toofaan gave him a newfound appreciation for real-life sportsmen and women, and of the issues they face around the world. “They’ve dedicated their lives to sports,” he says, noting that this is “not an easy choice” in many countries. His comments come amid a row over the European beach volleyball championship, at which Norway’s team face fines for refusing to wear bikini bottoms. The team complained the outfits made them feel unnecessarily sexualised. While he does not name any sport or organisation in particular, Akhtar suggests certain public authorities fall short when it comes to “respecting” and “taking care of” their athletes.
Akhtar was so passionate about the subject of his film, he reveals, that he was the one who went to director Rakeysh Mehra with the story for Toofaan. “It was an idea I had in my head for a while,” he says. “Finally, I collaborated with [Indian screenwriter] Anjum Rajabali who made it into a fully fledged screenplay, and we took it to Rakeysh.
“Rakeysh totally got it and understood what we were trying to say in this film and within 20 minutes, he was on to see it through.”
Cinemas in India are still closed due to the ongoing pandemic, meaning Toofaan will have its premiere on Amazon Prime Video, something that was virtually unthinkable before the virus took hold. But Akhtar views the release in a positive light, hoping it will therefore reach audiences around the world from its first day. “Who would’ve thought this was possible five years ago?” he asks.
By taking a summer blockbuster like Toofaan straight to streaming, Akhtar is certainly pushing boundaries. And there are already rumours about 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.
Asked if he could confirm any details, Akhtar says with a smile that he can “neither confirm nor deny” his role in an MCU project. Now that would be a transformation to marvel at.