Director: Sudhir Mishra
Writers: Sudhir Mishra, Nisarg Mehta, Shiva Bajpai
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bhumi Pednekar, Sumeet Vyas, Sharib Hashmi, TJ Bhanu, Sumit Kaul
With artistic and press freedom in the crosshairs over the last decade, Indian audiences have gotten used to outspoken storytellers finding subtler ways to convey their dissent. The targeting of liberal voices has forced them to be adroit about their views. (Most of these voices – producer Anubhav Sinha, Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Vishal Bhardwaj – have been thanked in the opening credits of Afwaah.) As a result, you don’t see overt swipes at the current landscape; it’s more sly subtext than blatant posturing. You get a horror allegory here (Dibakar Banerjee’s Ghost Stories segment) and a social metaphor there (Faraaz, 2022), a lynching here and some vigilantism there (The Family Man), a bigot here (Bheed, 2023) and a political thread there (Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat, 2023). So when something as politically direct as Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah comes along, it’s almost disorienting to watch. Given that the film makes very little effort to conceal its stance, you wonder if it’s trading narrative smartness for cultural credibility. You wonder if its disdain for nuance – combined with its penchant for frankness – makes it an important project or a good film. You also wonder if this aggressive manner is an antidote to the hypernationalism genre or a tit-for-tat retort to it.
There is no subtext in the plot of Afwaah (translation: Rumours), a based-on-true-rumours thriller in which ‘love jihad’, IT cells, viral videos, Whatsapp forwards, bigotry, mobs and lynchings shape the foreground of the film. The story of Afwaah opens with the youth leader of the Rashtra Vikas Dal Party, Vicky Singh (Sumeet Vyas), inciting a riot during his rally in a Muslim-majority area of Sawalpur. When Vicky’s loyal goon, Chandan (an excellent Sharib Hashmi), murders a Muslim butcher, the video goes viral. This leads Vicky’s fiancé, Nivi (Bhumi Pednekar), to rage at him and question his credentials as the future president of her father’s party. Nivi runs away from home with no real plan, until her path crosses with Rahab Ahmed (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a New York-returned adman on his way to attend his wife’s book launch at a literature festival.
The Muslim man and the Hindu woman soon find themselves on the run from the system itself. The IT cell repackages their story as a case of ‘love jihad’ to win sympathy for Vicky Singh and set the city’s crazed mobs on them. Parallely, Vicky’s trusted aide Chandan is on his own journey after being sacrificed by his beloved bosses for election optics. He keeps escaping the clutches of a corrupt cop named Tomar (Sumit Kaul), who in turn is having a torrid affair with a disgruntled female subordinate (a scene-stealing T.J. Bhanu). In short, the premise of Afwaah is as on the nose as it gets. There’s no shying away from political catchphrases, no fear of censorship (what with the thinly veiled stand-ins), and certainly no prisoners taken in its pursuit of head-on commentary.
At one level, this tone is the film’s weakness. Mishra and his writers seem to be so pumped by the courage of their material that its personality and depth often become secondary. For instance, Nivi looks planted in terms of who she is and how she thinks. She sounds too readymade (even if she’s mingled with students of Jawaharlal Nehru University during her education in Delhi), too unilaterally woke – like a feisty surrogate for the writers’ ideologies – despite growing up in a right-wing household. It’s the Protagonist Syndrome of sorts (like Murad in Gully Boy, 2019), where a person is a sensible outsider within their own regressive environment only by virtue of being the central character. They are ‘different’ because they need to be. Some of the staging feels simplistic, too. In case of a few peripheral Muslim characters, sad music plays when they speak or appear on screen (a driver casually admits he sold his kidney moments before being hit by a stray bullet), and the attempts to elicit pity (rather than empathy) are all too obvious. When Rahab and Nivi speak at one point, he ends up preaching (“Muslims like me die for nothing”) rather than conversing while she tearfully calls him a nice man. The Hindu mobs are inserted into the plot as glorified robots, while the IT cell specialists are presented as Gen Z caricatures who’re out to make a quick buck (remember the ‘hacker’ in A Wednesday (2008)?). The climax, which juxtaposes the musical elitism of a litfest with the violence happening outside the doors of their ‘walled fort,’ reeks of pretension rather than insight. Which is to say: The message is correct, but the messaging is a problem.
Even though the armchair-activist character of Rahab is nicely conceived – he is essentially a jazz-loving non-resident Indian (NRI) who swears by the concept of patriotism only to be attacked in his own country – Siddiqui’s performance is a giveaway. He plays Rahab like a punchline, hamming his English lines and flaunting the theatricality of a corporate stooge. In doing so, he reflects the attitude of a film that often sounds like it’s talking down to the country it critiques. Siddiqui brings to mind his performance-within-a-performance act in Mishra’s Serious Men (2020) where the film’s Manu-Joseph-sized snark found a home in the bitterness of a Dalit anti-hero. That character’s biting sarcasm – which stemmed from his ability to scam a nation desperate to view him as an underdog story – had every reason to exist. He condescends on a setting that was too busy condescending on him to actually see him. In Afwaah, you can tell that most of the actors are tickled by the characters they’re playing, which is the film’s way of implying that it’s too informed to be serious in its film-making. It knows too much, and it doesn’t have the patience to engage in the whataboutery of balance and craft.
That being said, this smug tone is also Afwaah’s biggest strength. If you recalibrate the snark – by placing it in context of today’s times – it enters the realms of unadorned satire. Here it’s the nation that’s the anti-hero, so the farcical nature of the film’s scenes reflects the farce of our current reality. The only difference is that the film ascends – and doesn’t descend – into farce. When donkeys exit a truck suspected to contain beef, or when a star politician abducts his own partner in a truck, or when there’s a shootout at a rural hospital, or when lit-fest snobs mistakenly applaud the sight of a dying man on their stage, it’s less of a film and more of a real-world news ticker. Consequently, some of the details are stranger – and stronger – than fiction.
For example, a character is shot by a man who turns out to be the rioter that hesitated to use a weapon in the opening scene. Then there’s Rahab’s instinctive use of “Ram Jaane (God knows)” on the phone with his wife, a phrase that reveals more about his privilege than any dialogue does. There’s the perceptive track of Chandan who, after being betrayed by his own, still doesn’t become the reformed hero we expect him to be. Just when we think he will morph into Nivi’s saviour, he says something that reveals the inherent bond between brainwashed bigotry and misogyny. The exploited police constable, Ria Rathod, also leads us to imagine a more impactful role. Her mother encourages her to bed her boss in return for a better life. But the film refuses to reduce her to a fantasy, instead keeping her rooted within a system where she has the last word without having the last laugh.
Could the execution of the film have been cleverer? Sure. Could the resolutions have been more mature? Definitely. But even the tackiness morphs into a language of discourse, where anything we dismiss as illogical or poorly crafted is perhaps a sign of our own social conditioning. Because that’s what Afwaah ultimately strives to be – a rearview mirror where objects and people are always closer than they appear. The question it crucially raises, though, is this: Should we even believe in what the mirror shows us anymore? Afwaah suggests that Sudhir Mishra may not have the time for nuance, but he does have a taste for truth. At this point in history, perhaps one is more necessary than the other.