‘Afwaah’ movie review: Sudhir Mishra’s night out in a rumour mill

A cautionary tale on how social media is used to peddle false narratives, this Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Bhumi Pednekar drama is an important document of the times we live in

Published - May 05, 2023 01:44 pm IST

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Bhumi Pednekar in ‘Afwaah’

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Bhumi Pednekar in ‘Afwaah’

Director Sudhir Mishra has this penchant for filling our plate with seemingly disparate elements that come together to provide a heady supper as a chaotic night progresses into darkness. This week, Mishra navigates yet another desperate night whose morning seems distant as he dissects the anatomy of afwaah (rumour) and how it spirals out of control when social media is employed as a tool to generate false narratives, and create social fissures for short-term political gains.

A timely thought that has emerged out of seemingly bizarre stories of lynchings and communal violence that appear in news pages, Mishra pieces together why and how the rumour mills operate in the hinterland in the age of cheap data and goes on to tell a cautionary tale that stings and stirs the soul in equal measure. Through an engaging series of events, the veteran filmmaker not only explores the politics and psychology behind the rise of vigilantism in the name of cow and love jihad, but also goes on to calibrate the pain when the shoe is on the other foot.

Set in a fictitious Rajasthan town Siwalpur that reminds one of Bharat Nagar in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, Afwaah spares none. It exposes the designs of demagogues, the hypocrisy of liberals, and the prejudices of the common man that swell when bombarded with relentless communal messaging.

With elections round the corner, Vikram Singh (Sumeet Vyas), a budding politician with a royal background, makes a provocative speech to please the alliance partner. When his henchman Chandan (Sharib Hashmi) goes overboard, things go out of control in Siwalpur and in Vikram’s personal and professional life. Vikram’s mentor and prospective father-in-law want him to take action against his acolyte for they have joined the alliance on a ‘development’ agenda and his fiancée Nivi (Bhumi Pednekar), a privileged girl whose moral compass is in order, decides to walk out on him.

Director: Sudhir Mishra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bhumi Pednekar, Sumeet Vyas, Sharib Hashmi, Sumit Kaul, TJ Bhanu, Rockey Raina, Eisha Chopra
Storyline: An advertising professional and a political heiress find no place to hide as they get entangled in a vicious rumour created by the social media machinery

In a twist of fate, Nivi is saved from the goons of Vikram by Rahab Ahmed (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an entrepreneur who has returned from the US, wanting to set shop in the country by selling the story of racial discrimination in the West, and is on the way to a literary festival where his wife’s book is being launched at a fort. As Rahab and Nivi head towards Nehargarh fort, a social media hound suggests to Vikram that it could be turned into a case of ‘love jihad’. The politician decides to play the politics of polarisation, setting into motion a series of events that brings you to the edge of the seat. The fort that appears to be a haven of safety turns out to be a congregation of the weak-kneed.

The visuals and screenplay are loaded with some low-hanging metaphors that make one chuckle and ponder over the bizarreness of the situation at the same time. Early in the film, the shots of a camel cart alongside a Range Rover sets us up for a tale that addresses the socio-economic disparity. Similarly, Rahab’s high-end car’s voice-guided navigation system provides some meta moments that give us an insight into how disconnected we are from the ground realities. Then, Mishra evocatively employs “Padharo Mahre Des”, the traditional Marwari song often used to welcome outsiders to Rajasthan, to showcase the deep-seated patriarchy in the region. But the best is when Nivi tells Rahab, a stranger, that they can’t survive without each other. It is not about two characters, but about two communities that make the idea of India work on a daily basis. Or when towards the end, Rahab, a non-practising Muslim who has faced caste bias in the past, looks into the mirror and stops for a moment while shaving his beard.

Cast against type, Nawaz peels Rahab’s personality with remarkable dexterity. The actor has the ability to rise above the didactics in writing to slip in the message. But Bhumi, at times, fails to delineate between acting in a film and a public service advertisement. Sharib is excellent in portraying the vulnerability and idiocy of the new-age vigilante who brays at the command of the master.

There are passages where the film assumes the preachy mode and the screenplay becomes a bit bulky with characters. The strand of inspector Tomar, keen to serve the interests of his political masters and his relationship with a female constable, is ungainly. Instead of taking the audience to the centre of the story, after a point, Afwaah sounds like a dramatised version of a Sunday story in a newspaper where there is little meat between he said and she said. But when Mishra arrives at the poetic justice after contemplating whether the light at the end of the tunnel is real or that of an incoming train, Afwaah leaves one restless and unsettled.

Afwaah is currently running in theatres

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