Much before filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Farhan Akhtar created box office history with the sports biopic "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag", the director had offered the actor a pivotal role in his acclaimed drama "Rang De Basanti". Headlined by Aamir Khan, "Rang De Basanti", which was released in 2006, chronicled the story of a group of college students who turn rebels for a cause. Mehra had offered Akhtar the part of Karan Singhania, which was eventually played by South star Siddharth.
The director recalled that Akhtar, who had made his directorial debut with "Dil Chahta Hai" in 2001, which also starred Khan, and was finishing "Lakshya" at the time, was taken aback when he offered the actor-filmmaker the project.
"He was truly amused because he had just made 'Dil Chahta Hai' and was finishing 'Lakshya'. I told him I wanted him to act in my film and he could not believe it at that point of time!
"I had offered him the part of Karan, which was the only author backed character in the whole film. Farhan was fascinated. I could see the twinkle in his eyes. He wondered 'What's wrong with this guy who is seeing me act in a film?!'" Mehra told PTI in an interview.
The director said Akhtar loved the script but "couldn't see himself acting at that point of time".
Years later, interestingly, Akhtar made his acting debut in 2008 with the musical drama "Rock On!!". He saw a career turnaround five years later with Mehra's "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag", a biopic on the life of the late legendary athlete Milkha Singh.
"Bhaag Milkha Bhaag" earned two National Awards for best popular film providing wholesome entertainment and best choreography for Ganesh Acharya.
The director-actor duo have now reunited for "Toofaan", another sports drama feature, scheduled to be released on Amazon Prime Video on July 16.
Mehra said both he and Akhtar wanted to work together after "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag" but the right opportunity came their way only three years ago when the actor called up the filmmaker with a story idea he had heard.
"It wasn't a full screenplay then. When I heard the story idea for 20 minutes, I told Farhan 'Let's do this' because it has a voice, I could feel it," he recounted.
Written by Anjum Rajabali, with additional screenplay and dialogue by Vijay Maurya, "Toofaan" traces the journey of Aziz Ali aka Ajju Bhai, a henchman who transforms into a national level boxer. The film also stars Paresh Rawal and Mrunal Thakur.
The 57-year-old director described "Toofaan" as an extremely real film, not just in the way its characters are dressed or the locations the film was shot in -- Dongri and Nagpada neighbourhoods in South Mumbai -- but also in terms of its emotional graph.
"Deep down, the emotions are real. In each character you'll see your reflection. Through their struggle, you'll relate with yours, through their fight and resolution, you'll get inspired, that 'Even I can win the battle of life.'"
The film, produced by Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani's banner Excel Entertainment along with Mehra's ROMP Pictures, is character driven rather than being plot driven.
"It's not just a boxing ring film, not about winning a bout but having a fulfilling journey in your life. Characters emerge when their backs are against the wall, not when the going is good. It's a story of people and relationships..."
With "Toofaan", Mehra goes back to sports to use it as a backdrop of a larger storytelling.
While "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag" was his attempt to understand the horror of India-Pakistan Partition, his latest is an exploration of the difficult lives of boxers.
"With 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' I could tell the story of a normal person stuck in Partition, through sports, through conquering the losses of life and finding a larger meaning. Rather than running away from your demons, facing and beating them.
"In 'Toofaan' what sports is doing to me, especially something like boxing... I studied the psychology of boxers. I spoke to a lot of boxers, in India and abroad. One thing I found in common was that they could take a beating. Not just a physical beating, they've taken a beating in their lives."
The director observed that most of the boxers have battled severe odds -- from being born in broken families to being raised in orphanages -- to become champions.
Akhtar's Ajju bhai in "Toofaan" goes through similar challenges, before realising that he can channelise his talent into something worthwhile.
"It's interesting for the character of Ajju bhai, a money collector, a henchman, who is into 'phoda phodi' (fist fighting), but his talent is being used in the wrong way. It's like you're an amazing race car driver but you're being used as a getaway driver after bank robberies.
"It takes Ananya's character, played by Mrunal, to show him the mirror and offer him the choices in life. Getting inspired by her, he goes on to inspire the entire nation," Mehra added.