In 1996, director Sudhir Mishra made a film called Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, which is one of my favorites from his filmography – number 1 on that list is Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Is Raat is the story of one night in the life of a Mumbai advertising executive who in a moment of anger and anxiety, slaps a mafia don – only he doesn’t know that he is a mafia don. What ensues is a frenetic chase which is suspenseful but also tinged with comedy. This dark night of the soul alters lives and when the sun rises, the principal players have a new perspective on life.
Which is also the case for Sudhir’s new film Afwaah, which also mostly takes place over one night. A night so torturous and violent that here too it feels ki is raat ki subah nahin. The location is Rajasthan where feudal mores, sectarian politics and misogyny are baked into the dusty landscape. Nivi, the fiancée of an upcoming politician Vicky Banna runs away because, as she says, he is ‘a power-hungry bigot.’ An America-returned, jazz loving, Range Rover-driving passer-by, Rahab Ahmed, saves her from his goons. As it turns out, he is Muslim. Now Nivi, who also happens to be the daughter of a leading politician and Rahab, become fugitives together. To save his imperilled masculinity and consequently, his career, Vicky allows his slightly unhinged-looking digital advisor to spin a love jihad story around a video of Nivi and Rahab. This rumor takes a life of its own and inevitably, the bodies pile up.
Afwaah has been produced by Anubhav Sinha who has, since Mulk in 2018, created his own sub-brand of cinema. Anubhav directs and produces films which are ripped from current headlines and which insist on confronting the many horrors of contemporary India. Apart from Love Jihad, Afwaah also depicts opportunistic politics, cow vigilante violence, fake news, IT cells and how social media can be manipulated to serve nefarious ends. The script by Sudhir, Shiva Shankar Bajpai and Nisarg Mehta, indicts across classes. Rahab is driving through Rajasthan to meet his wife who is attending a JLF-type literary festival. However, these perfumed intellectuals prove to be as clueless and spineless as everyone else.
It’s a cracker of an idea, which takes courage to bring to screen. But in the movies, good intentions are never enough. Sudhir begins with a visual of a car driving through a sand storm. He then shifts to Vicky at a political rally which in a heartbeat becomes violent. The tension and the terror of this is expertly created and sustained. Sumeet Vyas, who used to be the poster boy for small-screen romance, seems to be transforming convincingly into a monster. In the recently released Mrs Undercover, he was a serial killer. Here too, murder is never far from his mind. Vicky has so much rage coiled inside that you instantly understand what is at stake for Nivi when she decides to leave him. Into this cauldron of violence, outrage, power plays and chauvinism arrives Rahab, who is languorously driving while listening to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s classic nazm Dasht-e-Tanhai. In one scene, his car navigation system declares: Congestion ahead. Recalibrating time to destination. Which proves to be tragically prophetic.
But after this gripping first act, the screenplay begins to unravel. Sub-plots, one about a murderous cop and another about Vicky’s main goon Chandan, played well by Sharib Hashmi, take us away from the main thread too often. And eventually, logic makes a quiet exit. To say more would be a spoiler but it becomes apparent that the urgency of the threat to Nivi and Rahab’s lives, ebbs and flows according to the convenience of the story. In the middle of the bloodbath, they find time for a heart-to-heart in which Rahab introspects about who he really is. The story becomes increasingly reliant on social media and content going viral, which inevitably becomes a lazy trope to solve plot problems. Nuance is sacrificed at the altar of social commentary. By the end, anything is possible including a case of mistaken identity involving characters whose faces have been seen on videos through the film.
This is Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s second film with Sudhir after Serious Men. In that, he was brilliant as the deliciously duplicitous Ayyan Mani. But here, he has too little to work with. Rahab is more an idea than a human being. The character also has some of the clumsiest lines in the film. In one scene, he furiously bangs on a locked gate and says: dangerous log mere peeche pade hue hain.
Bhumi Pednekar does better. Especially in a scene in which Nivi delivers the film’s core point about how rumors gain power because we are so complacent, we are paying such little attention that we don’t bother to ask questions. Instead, we buy into what is fed to us, especially when it confirms our own biases. It’s a critical message which doesn’t quite land. Watch out also for T.J. Bhanu as a cop having an affair with her superior.
Afwaah, like Anubhav’s recent Bheed or Hansal Mehta’s recent Faraaz, is part of Bollywood’s cinema of dissent. It is critical we have this but too often, these films assume a position of moral superiority and forget that ultimately, the priority is to tell a compelling story. That itself will bring change. As the late American critic Roger Ebert famously said: Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.
You can see Afwaah at a theatre near you.