Toofan, Queen's Gambit, and Understanding Sports

Tumse naa ho paayega, Bollywood

This has been the summer of sport. Between men and women’s cricket, grand slam tennis, international football, and the regular Formula One season, there has just been too much happening everywhere. As excited as I am for many of them, a part of me has just been waiting for the Tokyo Olympics.

The opening ceremony is in a week, and I have been using the internet as a nostalgia library. YouTube has HD clips from Bolt’s insane 4x100m relay final from 2012, Phelps from 2012 and 2016, PV Sindhu in 2016. I also watched a lovely movie about Jesse Owens, and the Muhammed Ali biopic starring Will Smith.

Yesterday, while settling down for a lazy, rainy afternoon, I picked Toofan. It is a movie about a boxer, made by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and starring Farhan Akhtar. I have been waiting for Toofan. Partly for Farhan Akhtar and his incredible attention to detail, but primarily to sample how an A-list Bollywood studio produces a non-biopic sports story. 

Well, here we are in the middle of an essay. I guess there are some things I want to talk about. Full disclosure - I don’t know the first thing about filmmaking. My thoughts purely concern how a sport is shown on film. Given that Farhan and Excel Entertainment have hyped the boxing part of this movie, I watched it with that lens.

It starts well, to be honest. When Aziz Ali - played by Farhan - is introduced as a goon from Dongri, I was worried that the makers will focus the camera on the physicality of boxing. Paint it like an organised bar-brawl. But they quickly address through dialogue that boxing is anything but. It has its own craft and dynamics and needs to be treated with the same discipline as any other sport.

A dialogue from coach Nana Prabhu - played by Paresh Rawal - is rather crucial in this context. “Jaan hai iss mei. Baaki fugga hai, phod de.” He has power but the technical depth of a balloon. Burst him open. I like this dialogue because it marks an important aspect of any sport, especially one that Bollywood continues to get wrong. Raw talent cannot turn into anything substantial unless moulded by technique and graft.

When Aziz goes for his first session with Nana, they address boxing’s another untold secret: defence is everything. You can’t land punches with a punctured face. But they also forget about it at a crucial moment. More on that later. 

Up until Aziz Ali walks out for his first competition, the movie does the right things. And then we meet the commentators at the Maharashtra State Championship. One of them is Jatin Sapru. A prime time cricket and football host is now the resident expert at the state boxing championship. He speaks only in platitudes, as if there is nothing insightful to discuss, and frequently paints the boxers as larger than life.

It is safe to assume that the writers of this movie also wrote the lines for the commentators. After an initial qualifier in the tournament, Nana Prabhu gives Aziz the moniker of Toofan. The Storm. Since that moment, there is no commentator, across his five-plus year journey, who calls him Aziz, or Ali, or Aziz Ali, by default. It is always Toofan, or Aziz urf Toofan, accompanied by some storm imagery. Like the name is an afterthought.

This is where the cracks appear. If anyone from the team paid the slightest of attention, they may have known that lofty monikers aren’t dished out within someone’s first two competitive performances; or that Jatin Sapru isn’t a boxing commentator; or that state level boxing commentators don’t speak in polished, metropolitan, English, but in their local language. The official Instagram page of Maharashtra Boxing Association has pictures of their athletes with Mehra and his team. Too bad none were deemed good enough to speak on the sport they have dedicated their lives to.

The championship was Aziz’s competitive debut, and I was keen to see how the movie handles the matches. True to form, it comes with rapid cuts, distorted guitars, and high-tempo percussion. The message is clear: Aziz has become a boxer. After winning an annual tournament, the commentators garland him with “boxing ki duniya ka Muhammed Ali.” Boxing’s new Muhammed Ali.

Because that is all it takes to be Ali. I understand that such grandiosity can be a function of dramatisation, but this is something we amateurs and fans do. Expert analysts and commentators won’t call an upstart the next Muhammed Ali because he won a tournament.

During all this while, as Aziz is going up the ranks of Nana Prabhu’s boxing gym and the state championships, he is smitten by a doctor from a hospital he frequents. She notices this goon dancing with kids from an orphanage and has one of those Kenny G-and-autumn-leaves moments. I’ll leave love alone for now — in more ways than one, sigh — and stay on Aziz for another second. 

When the movie was first announced, I hoped Mehra and Farhan could team up and build an earthy story of a boxer. You know, like a regular guy with talent to burn who masters the technical complexity of the sport. But, lo and behold, we are dropped into a blooming love story that anchors a rudderless boy. What’s more, the boxer even breaks into a song-and-dance routine in the middle of his tournament. As you know, that’s what athletes do. State championships are going on, but some pelvic thrusting is needed for the full experience. In Bollywood, your obsession with sport is never enough unless backed by soaring romance. Love can be a great force, sure, but I wish more filmmakers understood the disservice they do to sports by using love as an axle and not a wheel.

Actually, I have rarely seen a sports movie from Bollywood that gets the axle right.

This brings me to how the movie deals with technical competence. We first meet a technically gifted boxer at the final of Aziz’s debut championship. As Dharmesh Patil, Aziz’s opponent and the defending national champion, walks out, the background score goes low and dark. His face is still and pale, his eyes stare straight at Aziz. The analyst at the ring tells us that Dharmesh has never lost a bout till day. Even if he was talking about domestic competitions, that is one hell of an achievement. Dharmesh and Aziz come together at the centre of the ring, a foot away from each other. The atmosphere is stormy. Dharmesh says this.

Dharmesh’s initial punches are accompanied by pulsating violas, the kind of sound that implies some sort of foreboding, of danger lurking around. The commentators, who are the chosen narrators for these bouts, call him experienced and physically imposing. When he fells Aziz, they say, “Ye Toofan se khel rahe hain.” He is bullying Toofan. Dharmesh’s ability isn’t even given the courtesy of a fleeting mention.

The bout goes on for a while, at which point coach Nana gives Aziz a small tip about a chink in his opponent’s technique. The game changes immediately. Aziz Ali starts exploiting the flaw. Obviously, an unbeaten defending national champion does not know how to deal with it. Boom, knock out.

A small digression. When Aziz progresses to the national championships, a shady man walks up to him and plants half a million worth of loose cash inside a bag. While other boxers are right there, milling around. Aziz doesn’t say a word because he thinks of what this volume of money could mean to him. The CCTV cameras catch this moment, and he is banned from boxing on match-fixing charges. The questions are aplenty — How did no one from the locker room, or Aziz’s team, know that CCTV cameras were present? Secondly, what were random people doing inside a locker room? Thirdly, how did Aziz decide in an instant that money is where the story is? His dedication to boxing is that trivial?

Details are everything. They make a story real.

We next meet a technically elite boxer at the last bout of the movie. Prithvi Singh, defending national champion. We are introduced to him as he is warming up. He has a scar on his right eyebrow and looks deep into a mirror. The background score of short, cutting horns (trombones) and a dropping bassline amplify the threat in the air. The parting shot in that sequence is of a boxing bag ripped open by his punches.

Right after he reduces his first-round opponent to jelly, the commentators give us the cherry on the cake - “Prithvi is a ridiculously ferocious boxer. He likes to win, but he likes destroying opponents even more.”

Defending national champion, but basically a grizzly bear. If this introduction wasn’t proof enough of how little our filmmakers think of technical ability, let me take you to the money shot of the final bout. You don’t need a spoiler alert prefix about the protagonist of a Bollywood story winning at the end.

In blue, Prithvi Singh, the best in the country, is standing with his face unguarded. In red, Aziz Ali is going for a left hook but with his entire body exposed to Prithvi’s left side. This is a frame that will never occur in a professional boxing match. Because these are the kind of technical mistakes that boxers at the highest level just do not make. 

You don’t become a national champion because you like seeing your opponents unconscious. You work hard at your craft, worship it to the point of obsession, and allow good technique to become muscle memory. You don’t land punches with your fingers open, just like India’s best bowler in Ranji Trophy won’t forget how to hold the seam of a ball. The whole point of becoming the best in the country is mastering the art and craft of your domain.

Some months back, I watched The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix series that follows the life of chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon. She starts her journey with city-based tournaments and eventually plays the Soviet grandmaster Borgov. Across every inch of tape, the makers respect the graft it must take for even a prodigy to become the best in the world. One of my favourite editing decisions from the series is that they spend a lot more time on Beth’s preparation than showing the actual matches. They make the story about her obsession instead of the applause her performance generates. 

It isn’t the most glamorous part of sport, but it is what makes elite sport happen. To have the courage to turn the camera towards the libraries and gyms, you need to know and respect the dirt of top-level sports. The spotlight-fuelled finals are basically milestones of a larger journey. 

Writers who care about sports, who get its dynamics, will know the effort it takes to become good enough to play title matches. Sadly, between Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Excel Entertainment, there weren’t enough people who did. The last men’s national boxing championship was held in 2019. How many participants do you reckon will relate to Aziz Ali’s story? How many kids at boxing gyms across the country will actually believe that they can also knock national champions out on their debut run?

Farhan’s dedication to craft is admirable. Like in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he has put litres of sweat into building a body and technique befitting an athlete. He deserves better than to be sold short by stories that are written without care and respect.

Toofan is probably an okay movie, but it is a terrible homage to boxing and sports.