The man who helped Farhan Akhtar build a boxer’s body for ‘Toofaan’

Celebrity fitness expert Darrell Foster shares how he works with actors such as Farhan Akhtar, Will Smith and Antonio Banderas to get them in shape for sports dramas

It is not just the protagonist’s surname that Toofaan (2021) and Ali (2001) have in common. Two decades after actor and fitness expert Darrell Foster moulded Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali in shape, he has done the same for Farhan Akhtar’s Aziz Ali, in Toofaan.

Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehta, this sports drama is set to release on July 16. Ahead of its premiere, Foster connects from his Los Angeles home to discuss the process of getting inside the mind and body of a boxer. He did that for Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson in Play It to the Bone, for Matt Hamill in Heart, Baby! and now, for Farhan.

The Bhaag Milkha Bhaag star isn’t a stranger to movies that demand rigorous fitness routines, but playing a national-level boxer brought new challenges. “We went over the pugilism fundamentals first: balance, footwork, hand and eye-coordination. Then we taught him to work on the heavy bag, the speed bag, to skip rope — everything necessary for him to portray his character,” says Foster.

In the year that he trained Farhan, Foster designed for him a personalised lifestyle management programme that looked after his cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and endurance, and flexibility. Since Farhan’s character goes through an arc of losing weight, gaining it and then losing it again, the transformation was extreme. “When you have location issues, when you can’t necessarily shoot where and when you want, it is quite taxing on Farhan to constantly change his look — starving himself at some point and force feeding sometime else,” he says, applauding Farhan’s commitment.

Prepping an actor for a sports drama or action is not just about extreme transformations or maintaining a high level of fitness, but also making sure the actor is in the right frame of mind, he says. “You have to deliver dialogue with the right amount of emotion, it is a mental task. Your brain operates on glucose and oxygen, so I can’t manipulate your carbo-hydration intake to the point that it begins to affect your ability to say your lines well. It requires training your intellect and your anatomy together, in congruence.”

This meant spending a lot of time getting to know Farhan, inside the ring. “It took time for me to understand whether it was simply a mood swing or whether it was his diet that was affecting his behaviour,” he shares, about how he began to accurately assess if Farhan was “firing on all cylinders”.

His fitness methodology includes what he calls Action Scene Analysis. “Say Farhan does an action scene outside the ring, where he has to run and jump over some tables and take off running down the beach. I will analyse the scene sequence by sequence to understand what muscle groups will be involved and then set up an exercise programme to facilitate that.”

Injury prevention is an important part of Foster’s brief. To do this, he works closely with the director and cinematographer. “If I’m having him throw a lot of lateral punches or straight punches for a scene today, I won’t have him doing weight training that involves shoulders. If he is sore from the upper body workout the day before, we will shoot from the waist below and get only the footwork. If we have a ring scene for which he needs to look great, and he has eliminated carbs and water for the day, I tell the director, let’s keep it just physical and not shoot any dialogues.”

Foster appreciates the amount of control the director let him have over the shooting. “Rakeysh was humble enough to step back and let you do what you do, and then ask, ‘can I get this shot done today?’. That’s what made it such a wonderful project to be a part of.”

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