Farhan Akhtar – bringing India to the world with sportsmanship
“Watching the Euro, the crowd in the stadiums,” says Farhan Akhtar of Zoom from his home in Mumbai, “makes you feel that we are really behind when it comes to this possibility. It’s not in the near future, that’s for sure.
The sports enthusiast Bollywood star, 47, was hoping to release her latest film, Toofaan (“Storm”), on Amazon Prime in May, but was forced to postpone until July 16 by the devastating second wave of Covid-19 that hit India in March. The film was finished and ready to be shot, but the suffering that engulfed the nation made the film’s release inappropriate. “It’s very restricted, that’s for sure,” he says of life since.
Reminding Rocky, the film is a story of struggle and adversity that will ring with many Indians, given the enormous toll the pandemic has taken on life and the economy, retracing the eventful journey of Aziz Ali, a trying boxer to leave behind his thug life in Dongri, a harsh suburb north of Mumbai. (The term “overalls” originated there because the garment was first produced by the local textile industry.)
The region is “as famous as it is charming,” Akhtar says. “That’s where a certain type of character from Mumbai comes from. . . We would call him a street guy. In the local language, it is a tapori. “
Tapori’s thug culture is as distinctive as that of the Italian-American Mafioso, with its own idiom, swagger, dress style, and sense of humor, and has been the subject of Bollywood films ever since. decades. Meaning “flowery” or “fully fertile” in Marathi, on the streets of Mumbai, tapori is slang for the heckling, malice and sexual vigor of young men.
Ali takes the viewer through all of these aspects of city life and his boxing milieu as he tries to use his ability for violence in the ring, rather than collecting extortion payments for his boss.
“The tradition of boxing has been around, especially in northern India, for a very, very long time,” Akhtar said. “This year we have nine boxers who will compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Unfortunately, there wasn’t too much money in it. . . It is an evolving sport. While boxing is “a sport for the poor, no one has any other choice,” he says, his profile has been uplifted by India’s medals at the recent Olympics and Asian Games.
Akhtar has a form in the genre of sports film. In 2013 he starred in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (“Run, Milkha, Run”), a biopic about revered Indian sprinter Milkha Singh, winner of a Commonwealth gold medal and representing at three Olympics between 1956 and 1964. (Singh died of complications related to Covid mid-June.) One of the biggest hits of that year, it harnessed the Indian public’s deep love for the sport that endures despite the country’s limited international success outside of cricket.
In Toofaan, Akhtar renews with Bhaag Milkha Bhaagthe director of Rakeysh Mehra. “He’s a sportsman at heart,” Akhtar says. “He was a national level swimmer. He understands what sport means, what sport can do, how it can be used to effectively tell a story. . . It inherently comes with wrestling. It inherently comes with sacrifice and dealing with loss. Sport can teach you a lot.
Akhtar and his older sister, Zoya, who is one of India’s most accomplished filmmakers, were born into the industry, like many Bollywood personalities. Their father is Javed Akhtar, an acclaimed screenwriter and lyricist, who belongs to a dynasty of Urdu poets and Islamic scholars. Their mother is actress and screenwriter Honey Irani. “The best thing they gave Zoya and me,” he said, “was the lack of pressure. . . There was never any expectation that we had to be in movies.
Akhtar’s film career began off-camera in 2001 when he wrote, produced and directed Dil Chahta Hai (“The heart desires”). Reimagine A lot of noise for nothing as a hipster romcom that hovers between Mumbai, Sydney and Goa, it marked him as the voice of a new generation of globalized Indians.
He continued his behind-the-scenes work, including writing song lyrics, for arthouse films and Bollywood films until 2008, when he starred in Rock On !!, on the rise of a grunge band from Mumbai. The film won national awards – including Best First Male Feature for Akhtar – and sparked not only its transition to the screen but its own music production as well, leading to its 2019 release of Echoes, an indie-inspired acoustic album.
While Akhtar has played many acting roles, he has also established himself as a versatile and successful producer and director thanks to Excel Entertainment, the company he co-founded with Ritesh Sidhwani in 1999. Excel owns a catalog that includes everything from boys’ comedies to Bollywood musicals and India’s entry into the 2019 Oscars, Gully Boy, who ventured into Mumbai’s burgeoning rap music scene.
His sense of production and taste for quirky stories suited him and excelled better at working with Amazon, which is trying to carve a niche in the vast Indian entertainment market with character-driven stories, rather than competing head-to-head. with the glitzy behemoth of Bollywood. The cricket drama produced by Excel Inner edge, which was nominated for an Emmy, was Amazon’s first original Indian content.
The company also produced the Bloodthirsty Gangster Series Mirzapur, now ordered for a third season, and Made in paradise, a brilliant Mad MenStyle show about the social and sexual intrigues of Delhi’s high-end wedding planners.
When I ask him how he maintains such a wide range of output, he replies, “Make it easy for writers to get to you. . . We constantly hear from young screenwriters and directors. . . We have set up a service to read everything that is sent. No one lingers, the writers always receive an answer.
The digital space run by writers is “definitely more liberating” than Bollywood, Akhtar says. “You can talk about things and how the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification] does not allow you. Made in paradise is one example: its plots, which include adultery and homosexuality, explore issues that Indian television rarely addresses.
The show was created, co-written and directed by Akhtar’s sister, Zoya. She worked closely with her brother on many projects from the start. “It feels like a very natural extension of our relationship,” he says. “We talk about films all the time. . . It didn’t feel like a change in our dynamic, which was always collaborative.
Her parents are a constant source of inspiration. “I make them read my scripts,” Akhtar said. “They are looking at the first cut.” Even in its most demanding form, their criticism is “very important.” . . I know it came from a good place. A place that wants to make work better.
Gritty, a naturalist and with an emotionally conflicted star seeking to please both his tyrannical trainer and his middle-class girlfriend, Toofaan looks like those films from the Hollywood Golden Age of the 1970s in which Sylvester Stallone found his voice. The challenge for Akhtar and Amazon is to see if they can create their own golden age in the Indian film industry.
‘Toofaan’ airs on Amazon Prime from July 16
To pursue @FTLifeArts on Twitter to discover our latest stories first