Farhan Akhtar is no stranger to the portrayal of athletes on screen and has earned praise for his portrayal of the legendary sprinter Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Bringing the story of Toofaan to life – in which Akhtar plays a boxer – was a whole new challenge, however, especially considering that his coach was none other than Darrell Foster, coach of world champion Sugar Ray Leonard.
Over the course of eight months, Foster had him train like a real contender, training alongside and with real boxers. The result is some really gnarled fighting sequences that are worth a bruise or two. “The training camp I did for Toofaan is an experience I will never forget,” says Akhtar.
Men’s Journal met the indefatigable Indian star to talk about preparations for Toofaan, his own stunts, and his love for the sport.
Actor Farhan Akhtar on fighting real boxers for Toofaan
What sports did you grow up with and did you play?
Growing up in India, cricket is injected into your bloodstream. I played a lot and was there all the time. I was consumed by it. Football was also a big part of my younger days, not just playing football but watching these amazing events like the world cup which was one of the few television events we got to see. Over time, I was introduced to boxing through a friend who fought for a club in Bombay at the federal and state levels. He talked a lot about boxing and these great fighters he knew. My curiosity was taken to a whole new level when Mike Tyson stepped on the scene. I was impressed with how unpredictable he was. I don’t know how to describe the appeal of the sport – something about the combination of brutality and beauty. It is fascinating.
The prep work to play a boxer is intense. Was there anything that surprised you?
I knew I had to be strong and fit and my stamina had to be high. No matter how fit you think you are, you are not prepared for the escalation. Furthermore, I didn’t really know what it would take to actually be in this ring. And I didn’t realize it until I actually got in and did it. It helped me understand the power of the feet and what it means to have strong footwork. That was a revelation for me because, like most people, when you fight boxers you mainly look at what your upper body is doing. You observe the shoulders, arms and how the neck moves back and forth. But actually it all starts with the feet, and I’ve learned that I have to build the house from scratch.
How was the process overall?
I trained in this discipline for eight or nine months and I really enjoyed the process. There wasn’t a single day that I didn’t want to show up or thought I was doing too much. I learned a lot about myself in the process. I was fortunate enough to work with Darrell [Foster] and have it there as a resource. I would say he’s more of a guru than a boxing coach. Once the basics were down, it stayed at a certain cardiovascular level because you can learn all the strokes and how to do them, but can you still do it when your body is completely stressed? Each stroke has to be as strong as the previous one if you are to win. I’ve done boxing, fitness training, and cardio. I didn’t want to shoot just three minutes, I wanted to shoot an entire eight-hour day, so I had to be prepared for anything.
Foster put together a fight camp for you in which you trained alongside career boxers. Did you hold up
The camp he set up was amazing and intense. He brought these amazing real fighters with him that I did all of my exercises with. I was also able to train with them, which gave me a lot of insight into the movement of a real fighter and kept me busy. When I faced these guys, I suddenly knew what level I had to be at. I also think Darrell wanted me to turn it around with the fighters too. Even if I’m just “an actor”, I looked for them and put the work into them.Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Were there any basic rules for making it easy – assuming you were there to act and not really fight?
I have to be honest with you, I never drew that line. I went into training thinking I was going to be a world class fighter. I’ve worked my way into that mentality, the warrior mentality, as Darrell says. I was ready to do anything to win. Because of this, it didn’t bother me in the least to be hit while we were filming. I was there to fight, not to act. I wanted the camera to capture someone who had that undeniable heart of a boxer. You can’t fake that.
Any advice from Foster that you found helpful?
One of the things he talks about is that two people can be almost exactly the same physically, but there is something within that allows one of them to go a little further. He can understand this better than anyone because he has seen it many times. He’s had these incredible experiences working with Sugar Ray Leonard or with Will Smith on Ali.
What was it like filming the boxing scenes for Toofaan and how did you know when it was going right?
We put everything in. I remember so vividly that when I was doing my boxing shots, the only person I looked for in the crowd was Darrell, even though we had a full crew. I looked for him in the room and could tell from the look on his face whether it was a good shot in his eyes or not. The man is familiar with the scientific and technical aspects of boxing, but also knows how to have it filmed authentically. To be able to rely on his honest feedback was an incredible enrichment.
Do you think you will keep up with boxing beyond this project?
Training didn’t stop for me and I’ve continued it since camp. I still box three times a week. It’s incredibly satisfying and empowering. There is an incredible feeling of exhaustion you experience that I don’t think is available anywhere else. In the end, you feel so tired, but also stronger than ever. I plan to box for as long as my body allows me.
Since you’ve already played a few sports heroes by this point, is there one sport you’d like to tackle on the big screen?
I would like to make a film about the world of cycling. I absolutely love this sport and I love sitting on a bike. If there is one story that fits this world well, that would be amazing.
Toofan is now available on Amazon Prime.
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