Farhan Akhtar is no stranger to portraying athletes onscreen, garnering praise for his portrayal of legendary sprinter Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. That said, bringing the story of Toofaan to life—in which Akhtar plays a boxer— was a whole new kind of challenge, especially consideringg]his coach was none other than Darrell Foster, trainer to world champion Sugar Ray Leonard.
Over the course of eight months, Foster had him training like a real contender, drilling next to and sparring with actual boxers. The result is some truly gnarly fight sequences, worth the occasional bruise or two. “The training camp I did for Toofaan is an experience I’ll never forget,” Akhtar says.
Men’s Journal caught up with the tireless Indian star to talk about the prep work for Toofaan, doing his own stunts, and his love of sports.
Actor Farhan Akhtar on Throwing Down With Real Boxers for Toofaan
What sports did you grow up watching and playing?
Growing up in India, cricket is injected into your bloodstream. I played a lot and was around it all the time. I was absolutely consumed by it. Football was also a huge part of my younger days, not just playing it but watching these amazing events like the World Cup, which was one of the few televised events we got to see. As time went on, I was introduced to boxing through a friend who used to fight for a club in Bombay at a state and national level. He spoke a lot about boxing and these great fighters he knew. My curiosity was taken to a whole new level when Mike Tyson burst onto the scene. I was in awe of how unpredictable he was. I don’t know how to describe the sport’s appeal—something about the combination of brutality and beauty. It’s mesmerizing.
The prep work involved to play a boxer is intensive. Was there anything that took you by surprise?
I knew I needed to be strong, fit, and my endurance needed to be high. No matter how fit you think you are, you’re not prepared for the escalation. Beyond that, I didn’t truly know what it would take to actually be in that ring. And I didn’t realize until I was actually in there doing it. That’s where I came to understand the power of feet, and what it means to have strong footwork. That was a revelation for me, because like most people, when you watch boxers fight you’re predominantly looking at what the upper body is doing. You’re watching the shoulders, arms, and how the neck is moving back or forth. But it really all starts with the feet, and I learned I’d have to build the house from the ground up.
What was the process like in its entirety?
I trained in the discipline for eight or nine months, and I enjoyed the process thoroughly. There wasn’t a single day I didn’t want to show up or thought that I’d taken on too much. I learned a lot about myself during this process. I was lucky to be able to work with Darrell [Foster] and have him there as a resource. I’d say he’s more like a guru than a boxing coach. Once the basics were down, it was staying at a certain cardiovascular level, because you can learn all the punches and how to do them, but are you able to keep doing it even after your body is completely taxed? Each punch has to be as powerful as the one before it, if you plan on winning. I was doing boxing, gym workouts, and cardio on top of it all. I wasn’t just going for three-minute rounds, but an entire eight-hour day of filming, so I had to be prepared for it all.
Foster put together a fight camp for you where you were training beside career boxers. Did you hold your own?
The camp he set up was amazing and intense. He brought in these amazing real fighters, who I was doing all my drills with. I got to spar with them too, which gave me a lot of insight into the way a real fighter moves, and kept me on my toes. Once I was facing off with these guys, I suddenly knew the level in which I needed to be at. I also think Darrell wanted me to flip it around on the fighters as well. Even though I may just be “an actor,” I was gunning for them, and I put in the work.
Were there any ground rules as far as taking it easy—given that you were there to act and not actually fight?
I have to be honest with you, I never drew that line. I was going into training thinking, I’m going to be a world class fighter. I worked myself into that mentality, into a warrior’s mentality, as Darrell says. I was prepared to do whatever it takes to win. Because of that, when we were filming, it didn’t bother me in the least to get hit. I was there to fight, not to act. I wanted the camera to capture someone who had that undeniable heart of a boxer. There’s no way to fake that.
Any pieces of advice Foster shared that you found helpful?
One of the things he speaks on is that two people can be almost exactly the same physically, but there’s something within that allows one of them to go a bit further. He can key into that better than anyone, being someone who’s seen it many times over. He has these incredible experiences of when he worked with Sugar Ray Leonard or working with Will Smith on But.
What was it like filming the boxing scenes for Toofaan, and how did you know when it went right?
We put everything into them. I remember so clearly that when I was doing my boxing takes, even though we had a full crew, the only person I was looking for in the crowd was Darrell. I would look for him in the room, and I could tell from his expression whether or not it was a good take in his eyes. The man knows all about the science and technical aspects of boxing, but he also knows how to have it filmed in an authentic way. Being able to rely on him for honest feedback was an unbelievable asset.
Do you think you’ll keep up with boxing beyond this project?
The training hasn’t stopped for me, and I’ve continued it ever since camp. I still have boxing sessions three times a week. It’s incredibly satisfying and reinforcing. There’s an incredible feeling of exhaustion you hit that I don’t think is obtainable anywhere else. At the end you feel so tired, but also stronger than you’ve ever felt before. I intend to keep boxing for as long as my body allows me to.
Given that you’ve played a few sports heroes at this point, is there any sport you’d like to tackle on the big screen?
I would love to do a movie based in the world of cycling. I absolutely love that sport, and I love being on a bike. If there is a story that comes along, that fits into that world well, that would be amazing.
Toofan is now available on Amazon Prime.
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