tv & movies

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra: Revelling in the zeitgeist

The ace filmmaker talks about his upcoming boxing drama ‘Toofaan,’ reuniting with Farhan Akthar, and why he makes films that are meant for perpetuity

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is not a man in a hurry. Seven films in 20 years, with his latest venture Toofaan set for release next week; the same week in July during which his first directorial Aks released two decades ago.

Today, the filmmaker occupies pride of place in modern cinema legacy as an agent of progressive change; such have been the impact of his films, from the jaunty socio-political highs of Rang De Basanti to the immersive adrenaline rushes of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. But what’s pertinent is that even when Rakyesh’s films haven’t set the box-office on fire, he has still managed to go out on a spectacular high, with projects like Delhi-6 and Mere Pyare Prime Minister amassing critical acclaim and cult fandom.

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A conversation with the 58-year-old is always fascinating; his answers measured, his tone nuanced, and one can even sense the many layered thoughts running around in his mind, as he explains what drew him to the script of a boxing drama and casting Farhan Akthar in it. The actor and filmmaker reunite eight years after the success of Bhaag… and expectations are naturally sky-high. Can they live upto them?

Excerpts from an interview:

Toofan is a refreshing departure from the spate of ‘sports biopics’ we have had over the last decade. Is the script a totally fictional story?

Well, I’ve been blamed too for going the biopic route earlier, but Toofaan is a complete work of fiction indeed. However, it draws everything from real life, from anecdotes and people I’ve seen and heard about, from conflicts and struggles. It is a drama at a family and social level, and a lovely romance, set against the backdrop of boxing, a sport that has huge synergy with the protagonist.

Why did you pick boxing as the backdrop for this drama, as opposed to some other sport?

Boxing is a lonely sport; not a team sport. In it, what is most important is not to hit, but how to take a hit. The person who stands till the end without getting knocked out wins; I see that as a metaphor for life. Life will slap and surprise you in different ways, but you have to stand, deal with it, and make yourself a better human being with the choices you make.

Farhan Akthar and Paresh Rawal in a still from the film 

Right from the inception, the script was lending itself to boxing too. The main character is like a bhai in a locality, from the Bhendi Bazaar and Dongri area in Mumbai. His life so far has taught him how to fight, but his talent and mind can go either way. One’s power can be used to better the society or it can be misused; that’s the story I wanted to tell. Often, the right path is the difficult one to choose.

The film seems to showcase a real gritty side to Mumbai, and the many lockdowns over the pandemic have only made us miss the ethos of our cities more.. How did you pick the locations?

Toofaan is a hundred percent shot in real locations across the city, because that’s the only way the audiences will be able to relate to the story. For me, it’s a part of the process to make the characters and the atmosphere as real as possible. This essentially means we weren’t shooting with sets, but in the real, cramped rooms you see in the movie, that didn’t have air-conditioning or make-up areas; the cast, crew, lighting and all huddled inside together. It was a fantastic shooting experience.

Tell us about your relationship today with Farhan Akthar; was it like catching up with an old friend to work on this film?

Our relationship has only evolved a lot since Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. We have always had a sense of mutual respect, and when we came out of our first film together, we felt extremely embraced. The project brought us both critical and box-office success, adulation and a lot of love, which in turn made the bond between Farhan and I stronger. It set a certain bar for us, as well as the hunger to come again together. But we weren’t in a hurry.

Akthar and Mehra collaborate for the second time in ‘Toofaan’ after their earlier success with ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ 

When you collaborate with someone like him, the energy grows manifold. The important thing is the like-mindedness in what we are doing; they could even be dramatically different approaches, but the intention is the same.

When I heard Toofan for the first time — it was narrated to me by writer Anjum Rajabali — I immediately understood its voice, and wanted to do it with Farhan. I feel both of us have grown a lot since Bhaag… and it’s exciting to tell a story that dwells deeper into human relationships. This film is not plot-driven, it’s character-driven, which is why I’m sure audiences will see their own struggles on screen and be able to empathise.

How do you switch between themes and genres while writing films? Mere Pyare Prime Minister was a social drama, earlier came fantasy romance Mirzya, and now Toofaan is a sporting underdog’s redemption tale…

For me, it’s always been about the environment I live in, influencing me. Whenever you have an opportunity to tell a story, write a screenplay, act or direct anything, you’re passing through a point of time in your life. Now if you can project that through your art, that’s great. The times always change; during Rang De Basanti, I was a different person with a different kind of angst inside me. Today, a lot of water has passed under the bridge, I’ve fallen more often and seen a lot more of life. So all those things start reflecting in my work.

At the end of the day, you have to be true to yourself; that’s what will touch audiences deeper. Films, for me, were never about Fridays or the first weekend, they grow and are meant for perpetuity. But even if you fail doing that, atleast you attempted to go there, be adventurous and travel a new path that will only enrich you. That makes it all worth it.

Toofaan will stream on Amazon Prime from July 16


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