Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and ramshackle low budget superhero spectacle are both subjects that will get a lot of play here at Teleport City, and when a film brings the two of them together we’re pretty much fated to cover it, no matter how underwhelming that film may be. Fortunately the 1989 movie Toofan comes to us wrapped in some particularly interesting context. It’s mildly depressing context, mind you, but interesting nonetheless.
These days, nearly forty years into his career, it’s hard to imagine Amitabh Bachchan being any more famous or respected than he is. When he’s not gracing some freshly minted Bollywood blockbuster with his distinguished presence, he’s appearing in public as the proud patriarch of a white hot acting dynasty comprised of his superstar son and daughter-in-law, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai. Hell, even Stephen Colbert has given him shout-outs. This combined with the amount of attention paid to his early successes might lead one to get the impression that his was a smooth and gradual–if you will, Al Pacino-like–transition from his breakthrough days as an iconic angry young man to the role of venerated elder statesman. That impression, however, would be quite wrong. In fact, the road that lead from Bachchan’s funky and fighting late seventies heyday to his living legend status today is one marked by some considerable stretches of rough pavement, of which Toofan is one small artifact.
Though the youthful Amitabh personified the hardscrabble working class hero onscreen, the reality of his circumstances was a bit different, a reality underscored by the fact that, when he first arrived in Bollywood, he did so armed with a letter of recommendation written by Indira Gandhi herself. Amitabh was a lifelong friend of Ghandi’s son Rajiv Ghandi, and his family (headed by his father, the renowned poet Harivanish Rai Bachchan) enjoyed a close relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi clan. These close ties would serve to alter Bachchan’s career path dramatically after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, when Rajiv, now the newly named Prime Minister of India, asked Bachchan to support him by seeking a parliamentary seat as a member of his Indian National Congress party. At the time, Amitabh was still at the peak of his phenomenal popularity. His serious injury during the filming of Coolie the previous year had lead to a national vigil that saw people lining up at temples to give prayers in his name, and the finished film was a runaway success as a result. Given that he was easily the most famous person in India at the time, popular election was a simple matter, and Bachchan ended up winning the parliamentary seat for his home town of Allahabad by the widest margin in Indian history.
Bachchan has since freely admitted that he was in way over his head in the political arena, and the rigors of his new calling ended up removing him completely from the acting sphere (though he would, thankfully, take time out from overseeing matters of state to make the wonderfully insane Mard). Things would become much worse for him with the eruption of the Bofors Scandal, ignited when evidence surfaced of Rajiv Gandhi and some associates receiving kickbacks–brokered by an Italian businessman who was a close friend of the Gandhi family–from the Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors in exchange for lucrative government contracts. The matter was one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of Indian politics and, while Bachchan was ultimately cleared of involvement, he was tainted by association nonetheless. Thanks in no small part to the aggressive attentions of a press drunk with the smell of celebrity blood, the public perception of him shifted away from that of a populist hero toward that of a representative of an appetitive and hypocritical elite. Understandably burned by the experience, Bachchan resigned from his seat after serving three years, vowing never to return to politics again, and began the process of getting his acting career back on track.
Unfortunately, Bachchan returned to a Bollywood that had largely moved on in his absence. A new batch of young stars had emerged, and new types of films–reflecting what was considered to be a more hopeful and less “angry” time–were being made. Not helping matters was the fact that Amitabh–thanks in no small part, I’m sure, to the stress of his political adventures–had not aged all that gracefully over the intervening years. He’d put on a few pounds, and his once youthful face had become somewhat puffy and haggard looking–neither of which are good things for an actor who has made his fame as an exemplar of burning youth. In short, Bachchan was a star in desperate need of reinvention. However, what successes such a reinvention might have engendered we will never know, because what the forces guiding Bachchan’s career–or, indeed, Amitabh himself–chose to do instead was to desperately cling to what had worked in the past. As a result, Bachchan closed out the eighties with a string of resounding box office failures. Among the earliest volleys in this barrage of cinematic duds was Toofan.
Toofan was one of a small handful of films directed by Ketan Desai. Though he would go on to become a successful producer, what was most noteworthy about Desai at the time was that he was the son of director Manmohan Desai, who had directed a number of Amitabh Bachchan’s beloved hits, including Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish, and the aforementioned Coolie, as well as numerous successful masala entertainers for other stars, such as the delirious Dharmendra-fronted costume epic Dharam-Veer. Unfortunately, Manmohan had chosen the previous of Amitabh’s late eighties flops, Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi, as his directorial swan song, and–perhaps due to failing health–served only as a producer on Toofan, which would be the last film he worked on. Manmohan’s is just one example of a power who had fueled Bachchan’s previous success having only a vestigial involvement in Toofan, the other being that of Salim Khan, just half of the screenwriting team–completed by Javed Akhtar–responsible for creating Amitabh’s most career-defining roles, including Zanjeer, Sholay, Deewaar and Don. I’m not sure what happened between Khan and Akhtar, but they appear to have parted ways after 1987′s Mr. India, which is admittedly a career peak that would be pretty hard to top.
You get a sense with Toofan of a creative team that’s grasping at straws, trying to assemble various successful elements from past films, along with a few tentative new ones, all in a somewhat messy attempt to rekindle their star’s earlier heat. Manmohan Desai was known for his “lost and found” dramas, which featured families torn apart by fate only to be reunited after much travail at the film’s conclusion, and one example of those, the aforementioned Amar Akbar Anthony, had been one of Amitabh’s most loved films, so that element is included. Bachchan also had great success with films in which he played dual roles, such as in Don and The Great Gambler, so that element is included as well. Finally, during the late years of his peak, Bachchan’s stature was such that his characters–such as those in Coolie and Mard–had begun to take on an almost superheroic cast, so it seems it was decided to push things just that much further and make his character in Toofan an actual costumed superhero.
The prologue that establishes Toofan‘s premise is elegant in its simplicity. Psyche! Seriously, given that this is a Manmohan Desai-produced masala film in the “lost and found” mold, you can be assured that simplicity has nothing to do with it. In fact, the plot of Toofan is so serpentine in its convolutions that it makes the labyrinthine Dharam-Veer look like No Exit by comparison. Once the film starts rolling, we still have thirty minutes to go before the opening credits, so just sit tight.
Ramesh (Ramesh Deo), a magician and escape artist, and Hanuman Prasad (the mighty Pran), a noble and upright police inspector, are friends. Ramesh and his very pregnant wife leave Bombay to visit Hanuman in his hometown of Udhampur on the occasion of his also very pregnant wife giving birth. However, on arriving they find that Hanuman’s wife has died in the process of birthing twin boys, and the shock of this revelation causes Ramesh’s wife to faint and fall down a flight of stairs. She miscarries as a result, and in response to Ramesh’s concern that his still unconscious wife will not be able to survive the news, Hanuman says, basically, “here, I have two”, and gives Ramesh one of his twins to raise as his own. Time goes on, and Ramesh schools his adopted young son, Shyam, in the magician’s trade, while Hanuman trains his son, Toofan, in being righteous and upright. Unfortunately, Shyam’s magician training is abruptly cut short one day when Ramesh fails to execute the old “locked box submerged in a body of water” escape, a turn of events that prompts the child to vow that he will himself master the feat one day.
Young Toofan’s relationship with his dad is equally short-lived. Asked by his superior, ACP Sharma (Kamal Kapoor), to escort a large shipment of gold on its way to the reserve bank, Hanuman finds himself made the patsy in a scheme between the corrupt Sharma, his lieutenant Patil, and the notorious bandit Shaitan Singh (Goga Kapoor) to steal the gold for themselves, and is fired from the force in disgrace as a result. The wild-eyed Shaitan Singh, however, has a bad habit of shooting absolutely everyone who works with or for him (a habit that makes it remarkable that he’s consistently able to find new recruits for his gang), and when he does the same to Patil, the crooked cop uses his last breath to inform Hanuman of Sharma and Shaitan Singh’s involvement in framing him. Rushing off to capture Shaitan Singh, who is escaping by train, Hanuman leaves a note written on a handy chalkboard for his sleeping son, detailing the particulars of Patil’s confession. What follows is some classic Action Pran as Hanuman jumps the speeding train and manages to cuff Shaitan Singh before the two of them end up in a violent brawl that leaves Hanuman hanging from the train car, still cuffed to Shaitan Singh, as a train approaches in the opposite direction on a parallel track. Unfortunately for Hanuman, Shaitan Singh is just about as badass as these Bollywood bandits come, and cuts off his own fucking hand in order to send Hanuman crashing beneath the wheels of the oncoming train.
At the moment of his father’s death, a violent wind blows open the shutters in young Toofan’s room, awakening him, and some highly selective drops of rain manage to erase both the names of Shaitan Singh and, partially, ACP Sharma from the blackboard, while leaving the rest of his father’s message intact. Toofan none too wisely runs with the blackboard to ACP Sharma, who, obviously not having mastered the poker face, freaks out and chases him away (though, strangely, without taking the blackboard, an oversight which enables Toofan to improbably hold on to it and the message it contains–apparently without once thinking to transcribe it in some more portable and permanent format–for the many intervening years between its first being scrawled and the events of Toofan’s denouement). From this point on, Toofan is pretty sure that Sharma had something to do with his dad’s death, and vows to find proof of that fact, along with the identity of Sharma’s mysterious partner in crime. But to do so he’ll need some divine assistance.
The young Toofan prays to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman for help, and in response to his plea a violent wind sweeps through the temple, causing a nifty six-shooter crossbow to fall from the shrine and land at his feet–and it’s not an ornate, mythological-looking crossbow, either, but a rather sporty one with the brand name clearly visible on the front. A robed sage says something about a righteous cyclone (“toofan”) sweeping through the land to clean it of wrongdoers, and there we have our origin story. Meanwhile, Shaitan Singh goes to see a doctor about the profusely bleeding stump that’s cropped up where his hand used to be and the doctor, having seen Shaitan Singh’s picture in the paper, dopes him up and calls the police, after which Shaitan Singh is carted off to jail, swearing eventual vengeance against the doctor.
Now, allow me to backtrack a bit to discuss the matter of Hanuman. I am woefully ignorant about the Hindu religion, and what I do know about Hanuman, as with many things, I know only from watching movies. But based upon that meager amount of no doubt highly dubious information, I think that Hanuman is awesome. As he’s depicted in the several Bollywood “mythologicals” I’ve seen, he’s similar in character to the Monkey King from Chinese folklore as he’s portrayed in the Shaw Brothers “Journey to the West” movies. His unwavering sense of justice is tempered by an antic sense of mischief, and he’s just as likely to shrink himself down to bite-size in order to tamper with an adversary’s insides as he is to swell to enormous proportions to simply step on him or kick him into the next life. Plus, he’s the only Hindu deity, as far as I know, who is friends with Ultraman, as evidenced by the Thai movie The 6 Ultra Brothers vs. The Monster Army–which, to my mind, is the highest endorsement that any religious figure could attain. If Ultraman is on board, then I’m just a miracle away from signing up myself.
Anyway, we now advance forward twenty-seven years to the introduction of Toofan as we will know him for the rest of the movie, prompted by a gang of scruffy bandits terrorizing a wedding party. Toofan’s entrance is announced by a cyclone, and accompanied by a snappy theme song that is by far the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable score by Anu Malik. When we see him, it’s Amitabh wearing his best mien of righteous fury, dressed in black genie pants with a bright orange cape, sash and scarf, and charging in on horseback with his trusty crossbow ready for action. As his theme song thunders away on the soundtrack, Toofan dispatches most of the bandits by means of arrows that are shot with uncanny speed and precision, then kung fus the stragglers, all the while booming away in a voice equipped with its own reverb chamber, just to further underscore his divine origins.
Now, admittedly, Amitabh does look slightly silly. But, still, Toofan the superhero sounds kind of cool, doesn’t he? And, having established that, we next encounter what turns out to be the major problem with Toofan the movie. Because, once this scene has concluded, we will not see Toofan again for a solid hour, and will instead be spending hard time with Toofan’s twin brother, Shyam, as irritating a comic ne’er-do-well as has ever been seen. While there is some awkwardness to the less-than-fighting-trim Bachchan’s portrayal of Toofan, it’s still a role that he’s relatively at home with, whereas his performance as Shyam reeks of desperation. In his efforts to sell Shyam as a lovable goofball, he mugs away frantically like a coked-up borscht belt comedian, and the result is unbearably corny and cloying. Of course, we’ve seen Big B in comedic mode before (such as in the role of the double Vijay in Don and in much of Amar Akbar Anthony), but those performances were aided, first of all, by his confidence as an actor, which kept him short of overselling in the manner that he is here, and, secondly, by stories that kept those characters integrated within a narrative context that didn’t leave them just hanging out to become little more than annoying, human-shaped roadblocks to audience involvement, which is what happens here.
I’m going to take the Shyam portion of Toofan at speed because, even though a bunch of things happen during that hour, very little of them have any impact on the larger plot of the movie. Suffice it to say that Shyam, who is making his living as a magician performing at children’s parties (and whose magic consists of a combination of cheap novelty store gags and Bewitched style special effects–confusing the issue of whether he’s supposed to be performing sleight-of-hand or actual magic) gets hoodwinked by a corrupt hotelier and his gang into aiding in a robbery, and ends up in trouble with the police as a result. After he is bailed out by his cab driver friend, Gopal (Farooq Shaikh), the two of them set about trying to prove his innocence, setting in motion a series of searingly unfunny slapstick episodes helped not in the least by lots of under-cranked camera work and wacky sound effects.
Finally things turn serious when the gang tries to silence Shyam, and Gopal, throwing himself in front of an oncoming car to protect him, ends up losing both of his arms. After leaving the hospital, Gopal, not wanting to be a burden on his friend, goes to visit his family, who have been living at home with his father while he makes his living in Bombay. As fate and the frantic loose-end tying of screenwriter Salim Khan would have it, Gopal’s father’s home is in Udhampur, both the stomping ground of Toofan and the hiding place of the gold stolen by Shaitan Singh at the beginning of the movie–and Gopal’s father, furthermore, is the very same doctor who turned Shaitan Singh in all those years ago. (Gopal’s homecoming also provides us with a replay of that famous scene in Sholay in which the wind whips away the blanket wrapped around Sanjeev Kumar’s shoulders, dramatically revealing that he has lost his arms.)
Meanwhile, back in the movie that we wish the rest of Toofan was more like, Shaitan Singh has escaped from prison, a feat he has accomplished in part by means of setting himself on fire (badass). To be honest, I’m not sure that the whole setting himself on fire part was all that necessary to his escape, but the shot of him emerging from his cell in slow motion, on fire, while shooting everyone in sight was definitely necessary to me being able to make it through the remaining hour of Toofan. Once doused, Shaitan Singh makes his way to Udhampur and regroups with the members of his old gang whom he hasn’t already shot, who fill him in about Toofan. Toofan’s presence, they tell him, has not only kept their criminal endeavors in check, but also emboldened the local populace, a situation that must be dealt with if they are to successfully extract their treasure from its hiding place (a task which now, for reasons I won’t go into, will involve excavating a temple that has been built over the burial site). Shaitan Singh manages to draw Toofan out, after which a tremendous fight ensues, ending with Toofan dangling perilously over the edge a sheer waterfall. Unfortunately, the only thing that’s keeping Toofan from falling is the fact that he’s handcuffed to Shaitan Singh’s prosthetic hand, which comes with a convenient spring latch that, when released, sends the poorly composited Amitabh/Toofan tumbling down into the raging waters below. Now free to terrorize as they please, Shaitan and his gang go to take vengeance against Gopal’s father, killing Gopal and his wife–and orphaning his young son–in the process.
Soon after, Shyam arrives in Udhampur looking for Gopal. Since Shyam is still considered a criminal and is jumping bail, the Bombay police arrive hot on his heels, but instead find the unconscious Toofan at the base of the waterfall and take him back with them under the mistaken impression that he is Shyam. Upon finding himself in Bombay, the noble Toofan ends up taking on the guise of Shyam out of compassion for Shyam’s long suffering mother, who is obviously so incapable of handling bad news that anyone within a five mile radius of her would rather attempt to shift the tides than be the bearer of it. So, in case you missed it, let me point out that we were once again given a brief scene of Toofan being awesome to the accompaniment of his snappy theme song, immediately after which he was again effectively removed from the action, not to return in superheroic form for another good chunk of the movie. Instead, as might be predicted, Shyam finds himself convinced to impersonate Toofan in order to thwart the bandits and embolden the populace, and so, not only do we have an absence of Toofan, but an absence of Toofan filled by Shyam’s cloyingly goofy impression of him.
Shyam’s stint as Toofan goes pretty much as would be expected, except for one odd aspect that I wanted to point out. In those instances where Shyam does do battle with Toofan’s foes, he does so with his magic, and his magic, as I’ve alluded to earlier, appears to be actual magic, including the abilities to levitate himself and others at will, make objects in plain sight turn into other objects (such as when he turns an attacker’s sword into a snake), vanish things into thin air, and instantly hypnotize people to do his bidding. In short, Shyam’s powers are far more limitless and god-like than those of the real Toofan, who basically just hits people and shoots them with arrows, yet these scenes are played as zany comic relief bits. In fact, when Shyam really wants to get results, he uses his fists, even though, from what we’ve seen, it looks like he could simply wiggle his nose and make Shaitan Singh and his men disappear. Of all the weirdly sloppy plot elements that litter Toofan, I think this one may have been the weirdest and the sloppiest–but, then again, that may just be because it’s the one that I’m focusing on at the moment.
Back in Bombay, Toofan’s impersonation of Shyam leads to a lot of other business that has no bearing whatsoever on the main plot of Toofan, but to its credit does ultimately lead to Toofan, as Toofan, returning to Udhampur to settle things once and for all with Shaitan Singh. And it is here, in like fashion, that the movie Toofan finally becomes a Toofan that we can all get behind. Shaitan Singh and his men perform a daring recovery of the stolen gold by burrowing from underneath the temple through the roof of a conveniently located train tunnel, finally dumping the treasure into a waiting freight car, after which Shaitan Singh celebrates by summarily blowing away his entire crew. Shyam tries to intervene, but ends up handcuffed to Gopal’s son in a model train boxcar that plunges off an elevated bridge into the river below (meaning it’s time to make good on that vow to successfully execute that failed stunt of his father’s). ACP Sharma shows up to claim his share of the gold from the traitorous Shaitan Singh, leading to a bloody confrontation. Finally, Shaitan Singh commandeers a plane to make his getaway, with Toofan in hot pursuit. In what is by miles the film’s most memorable scene, Toofan uses his crossbow to shoot a line into the plane–the end of which spears itself not only through the floor of the plane, but through Shaitan Singh’s foot as well–and then scales up the line (which hangs slack in a straight vertical line from the underside of the airborne–and no doubt rapidly moving–plane) into the plane’s cabin for a final balls-out smackdown with his nemesis.
Admittedly, the final twenty minutes of Toofan are amazing–so amazing, in fact, that if the rest of Toofan were even half that good it would probably be one of my all time favorite films in which a somewhat out-of-shape guy in an ill-fitting superhero costume runs around kicking ass. By a fair account, there are probably about forty-five minutes to an hour of really good movie hidden within Toofan and, if I was inclined to do such things, I would take that forty-five minutes to an hour of really good movie and cobble together my own version of Toofan, which would consist of the fight between Pran and Shaitan Singh on the train, every scene where Toofan is riding around shooting people with his crossbow to the accompaniment of his snappy theme music, Shaitan Singh escaping from prison on fire, and those final twenty minutes. Of course, what I would then have would be something very far from the crazy Bollywood masala movie that Toofan was obviously intended to be.
That is not to say, however, that the fault with Toofan lies necessarily within the sprawl of its story or the convolutions of its plot. In fact, one of the great pleasures of watching a well made masala film of this type–like, say, Amar Akbar Anthony or Dharam-Veer–is in seeing the ingenious, albeit far-fetched, ways in which all of the many disparate strands of character and circumstance that the filmmakers have laid out ultimately end up falling into place. The problem with Toofan is that so much of what it lays out never really comes to anything, and only serves to distract from the parts of the movie that are actually entertaining. For instance, note that I am only now mentioning the film’s two female leads, Meenakshi Shehadri and Amrita Singh, who are so poorly integrated into the story as to become superfluous, and who disappear from the film without remark well before the climax as a result. (It appears that no trouble was taken to even give Amrita Singh’s character a name, despite the fact that it seemed like she was being set up to be Toofan’s love interest.) In like fashion, the whole subplot involving the crooked hotelier who frames Shyam–which is revisited at length during the segment of the film in which Toofan is masquerading as Shyam–never ties into the larger plot in any significant way, and isn’t interesting enough on its own to merit the amount of time it’s given–even though it provides an opportunity for the appearance of the always welcome Bob Christo.
All of this is a shame not just for the audience, who must suffer through Toofan‘s vast stretches of unengaging filler, but also for Amitabh Bachchan, who so desperately needed for the movie to be a hit. Because, as I’ve indicated, Toofan contains all the makings of a very entertaining film; it’s just that those involved in its creation were too busy throwing anything that they thought might stick at it to take stock of exactly what those makings were. And so a lot of fun, cheesy thrills–as well as a serviceably heroic performance by its star and some pretty well-staged scenes of violent action–ended up getting buried in a storm of half-baked contrivances and unnecessary shtick. As a result Toofan was a film that was pretty hard to love–and Amitabh was still left with a long climb ahead of him in his struggle back to the top.
And to belabor things, perhaps the image of Amitabh wearing a somewhat unflattering and ungainly costume while trying to climb up a rope into a moving airplane provides a suitable metaphor for that struggle. He would eventually succeed, of course, but not until a lot of time had passed in the wake of Toofan‘s inauspicious release. As mentioned earlier, more box office disappointments would follow, and in response Amitabh decided to take another break from acting to try his luck on the corporate side of the entertainment industry. The result was Amitabh Bachchan Corp., Ltd. (ABCL), an ambitious film production, marketing and distribution company. Unfortunately, that venture failed spectacularly due to mismanagement within just a couple of years, and Amitabh returned to acting once again, only to produce yet another string of sinkers. Strangely, the thing that facilitated Amitabh’s eventual return to the diamond glow of superstardom was not any kind of breakthrough film role at all, but rather his becoming host of the Indian version of the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? By becoming a familiar presence in their homes week after week, the Big B once again endeared himself to the Indian public, making them receptive again to his presence on the big screen. This was also helped, I imagine, by the fact that, with a string of grizzled patriarch roles, Amitabh was playing characters appropriate to his age for the first time in 20 years.
So there you have it, boys and girls: The legend of Toofan, a story of crashing falls from great heights, tears, struggle, and ultimate triumph over adversity, all far more interesting then the legend that the makers of Toofan the movie set out to tell. So next time you’re watching some current Bollywood hit and you see Amitabh Bachchan making a cameo as an aging kingpin or a lovable uncle with an annoying catchphrase, keep in mind that this is a man for whom the privilege of phoning in performances in fluff roles that are largely the result of stunt casting has been especially hard won. But I jest, of course. Being huge fans and supporters of Amitabh, we here at Teleport City wouldn’t have wished anything but a happy ending for him. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to send him a bill for the time I spent watching Toofan, though.