The Subtle Hypocrisy Of Religious (Mis)Representation In 'Toofaan'
Why Paresh Rawal's muslim-hating character in Farhan Akhtar's Toofaan is problematic.
The biggest problem with Farhan Akhtar and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Toofaan is not that it’s a stale hodgepodge of ill-derived sports film cliches clunkily cobbled together. Nor is it the bloated runtime which is unapologetically padded with needless and insipid songs and the futile pretence of setting up characters that seem to be recklessly fashioned from borrowed cardboard. But it is the insidiously irresponsible if not cunningly conceived politics of the film that make it lean towards problematic propaganda more than just the puerile incompetence of everyday Bollywood fare.
Its comically contrived plot is kicked off when Farhan’s Aziz Ali, a Dongri thug with the proverbial heart of gold – proven by the film because he hangs out with orphaned kids – aspires to become a boxer. Now how does his proclivity for violence really translate into his prowess as a pugilist is never explained, but soon enough he finds himself state champion under the tutelage of ‘Mumbai’s best coach’ Nana Prabhu, who’s most defining characteristic is his deep-running Islamophobia, second only to his overtly established cultural identity as the typical Marathi manoos.
Now this is where Toofaan's troubles begin. But not in a cinematic sense. That began from the moment Aziz was spotted charmingly chilling with the aforementioned orphans by a passing Dr. Ananya (played by Mrunal Thakur), something that sows the seeds of his redemption in her eyes which will predictably blossom into the fruits of love all the while making the narrative take root in decades old filmy tropes that ought to be penalised for appearing in the movies any longer.
But coming back to Toofaan’s primary predicament: its religious commentary, which initially seems to be yet another embellishment tacked on to add token cultural relevance and lend its narrative an apparent bite that seems to be missing from the film’s lackluster bouts (quite conservatively captured by Jay Oza). The protagonist is a Muslim being mentored by a bigoted Hindu who expresses his prejudiced beliefs overtly within the confines of his home, among friends and family, and rather surreptitiously in public through exerting his religious identity in another domain that he commands – the ring; where he chants Jai Hanuman before and after every match, invariably echoed by all present including Aziz.
Now there’s no harm of course in chanting religious slogans, nor is there any apparent malice in wearing one’s religious identity on a sleeve. However, when you take into account the spite harboured in his heart it becomes telling of the sinister undertones of seemingly harmless and everyday greetings.
The subtle programming via gestures or phrases which are used as reminders to reinforce the majoritarian supremacy. The parallel to another oft-repeated chant that has been unfortunately co-opted by militant right-wing groups and lynch mobs is easily drawn.
This is all still very honest and sincere on part of the filmmakers and is about the only shred of nuance in this hot mess of a movie which has had all the subtlety pounded out of it like the battered temples of its central player gushing with blood. But it’s what Toofaan builds upon from here that is truly disturbing. That Nana Prabhu’s intense Islamophobia stems from a reactionary stance rightfully triggered by the death of his wife in a terrorist plot. That his hateful vitriol finds validation through the film’s narrative as his ultimately despised student and son-in-law is found guilty of match-fixing, thereby reinforcing Nana’s belief of “khoon hi ganda hai”.
That near the film’s end as resolutions are in order, his reconciliation with his granddaughter is only made possible after she assimilates completely into her mother’s – and therefore his – religion and through that earns his approval and love, signalling a cleansing from the polluting influence of the 'love jihad' that her mother fell prey to.
While the casting of Paresh Rawal, a vocal supporter of the majoritarian narrative with a chequered history of some problematic tweets, may not seem incidental, the effortlessness of his portrayal could be attributed to his excellence as a performer. But Toofaan’s most unforgivable sin remains its desperate attempts at cultural relevance which are tone deaf at best and potentially incendiary at worst. Not only do they construct a brazenly Muslim-hating character who brandishes his hate with pride at a time like this but they let him off the hook completely, as even by the end, he remains seemingly unaltered in his beliefs; learning very little and changing not at all.
His only relationship with a Muslim character, Toofaan's protagonist, is explained away by their mutual passion for the sport as the entire track about his Islamophobia – the one defining trait of his character – is unceremoniously dropped, as if the makers were equal parts embarrassed, confused, and scared about where to go with it.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum is Aziz Ali – the perpetrator of the 'love jihad', who is depicted in a manner that reeks of a subversive technique of token Muslim representation in film. That Bollywood has been riddled with stereotypical depictions of Muslim characters is well known. And while the kohl-eyed, pathani suit donning men with red-stained lips that smack with impeccable Urdu may have been relegated to the collective embarrassment of the ‘90s or the aughts, Muslim representation in Hindi films hasn’t yet seen the desired uptick that it deserves. In fact, the depiction of Muslim characters has usually fallen in only one of two categories over the years. The aforementioned and staunchly devout, who has no purpose in a story but to advertise their muslimness, mostly as the villain, or on occasion as comic relief. The other, and equally misrepresentative, has been the silently irreligious side-character (most commonly a friend to the protagonist) who betrays no connection with his religious identity beyond bearing one of a handful of common Indian Muslim names.
The erosion of their Muslim identity only serves to reiterate the subliminal dichotomy of either being overtly Muslim – and therefore an antagonist – or being utterly disassociated from any religious indicators of their culture altogether. Just like Aziz, who besides his name has no markers of his religious identity, in stark contrast to Nana Prabhu who, as pointed earlier, yells it every chance he gets. But the makers go even a step further. While his coach recklessly mouths off his hatred of Muslims, slaps and abuses Aziz for daring to love his daughter, it is Aziz who must assimilate himself into his culture to escape being otherized. The onus of communal harmony is upon Aziz as he fends off religious fanatics from both sides and chooses to practice a liberal matrimony. While his negligible religious identity is already eroded by now, the fact that he must placate to a hardened bigot to earn his approval comes off as rather twisted and regrettably telling of the times. But especially twisted.
Very rarely has Bollywood presented a well-rounded Muslim character whose religion doesn’t define their purpose in a story but anchors them in a cultural identity that resonates with a significant chunk of the demographics that consume these films. To illustrate a strong and recent example one doesn’t even need to look too far. Farhan Akhtar’s sister Zoya’s characters in Gully Boy, both Murad played by an exceptional Ranveer Singh and his love interest Safeena played by a spunky Alia Bhatt, firmly establish their Muslim identity, without giving into any of the inherent pitfalls. A namaz scene here and a headscarf there are enough to show they are religious, but that doesn’t really inform their conflict or catharsis. Instead, it’s just a part of who they are, just like how they could be artistes, doctors, boxers, thugs. It’s not an embellishment, and yet it doesn’t need to be completely superficial either.
While subtle flourishes such as these may not contribute to much, it’s the cumulative whole of correct representation which reflects back on to the society a healthy and harmonious atmosphere of coexistence, especially in a time like this. For only a little over a week ago, hundreds attended a public event held ‘against love jihad’ in Haryana where calls for violence against Muslim men and women were welcomed with resounding applause. The rabble-rousing teenager who made the speech had previously opened fire at students protesting the CAA/NRC in Jamia, Delhi.
One can’t help but wonder what impact will watching characters like Nana Prabhu – spewing hate on screen and swiftly finding cinematic redemption – have on the psyche of a nation already ravaged by religious divides and witnessing crimes against minorities at a higher frequency than ever before. It is worth noting for filmmakers that by attempting to score brownie points for cultural relevance they must not play to the galleries and reinforce dangerously dogmatic beliefs. For I’d much rather have the legacy of Toofaan be a sub-par entry into the piling glut of boxing films than for giving us, through Paresh Rawal’s Nana Prabhu, the Kabir Singh of militant Hindutva.
(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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