When Aziz Ali (Farhan Akhtar), the starry-eyed gangster at the heart of “Toofaan,” first comes across videos of Muhammad Ali, he’s hooked. Though it goes unsaid, the appeal clearly isn’t just the boxer’s athletic artistry — it’s also his chosen name. To our hero, Ali is one of his own.
That surname, and the faith that it represents, becomes the albatross around Aziz’s neck. In “Toofaan,” the Bollywood director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra attempts — with some success — to deepen the standard-issue sports drama with sociopolitical strife ripped from Indian headlines. Aziz, who hails from a lower-class Muslim neighborhood of Mumbai, finds himself imbued with new purpose when he’s taken underwing by the top boxing coach Nana Prabhu (a superbly committed Paresh Rawal). The grizzled mentor sculpts his overeager student into a formidable talent: a “toofaan” (storm).
Nana is a pious Hindu whose grief at losing his wife in a terrorist attack has calcified into Islamophobia. His passion for the sport transcends his faith, but only to a limit. When he discovers that Aziz is dating his daughter, Ananya (Mrunal Thakur), he kicks them both out. “Toofaan” takes a surprisingly gritty turn at this point, switching from slick fight montages to scenes of Aziz and Ananya’s struggle to live as an interfaith couple in Mumbai — a city where cosmopolitanism coexists with crude bigotry.
This brief stretch of the movie is its best: life-size, attuned to everyday urban realities, and bravely blunt in its portrayal of prejudice. But Mehra takes the easy way out with a contrived, tragic turn that returns the film in its second half to the much-beaten path of the tarnished athlete fighting to reclaim his honor.
Not rated. In Hindi and Marathi, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hour 43 minutes. Watch on Amazon.