Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bhumi Pednekar, Sumeet Vyas, Sharib Hashmi, Sumit Kaul, Appurv Gupta, TJ Bhanu, Rockey Raina, Eisha Chopra
Director: Sudhir Mishra
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
More than a film, Afwaah, Sudhir Mishra’s first theatrical release in five years, is an act of courage and a fervent plea for sanity in a time of bigotry and intolerance.
It may not be saying anything that we do not already know but the fact that it dares to say what has got to be said, and without mincing words at that, is deserving of unstinted applause.
Afwaah is focused as much on an unsuspecting victim of intolerance and rumour-mongering as it is on the perpetrators – and beneficiaries – of divisive politics. Mishra’s mellow treatment of a delicate political theme appreciably enhances the coherence and impact of the statement.
Afwaah does not holler and hector to drive home its point. The anger that that it articulates is tempered with a combination of bafflement, trepidation and anguish. The film’s frequently syncopated pace conveys the frenzy and the fear unleashed by men blinded by hatred and madness.
Afwaah, written by Mishra, Nisarg Mehta and Shiva Shankar Bajpai, does not come out swinging a mallet. It exudes the sharpness of a scalpel drilling into festering sores gnawing at the vitals of a society divided. It adopts an unwaveringly inquisitorial tone to address an emotive, urgent subject.
The plot, which pans out over one night, revolves around an insidious canard that wreaks havoc. A lynch mob goes on a rampage as a lie runs amok and endangers innocent lives.
In the opening moments of Afwaah, an untruth sparks a brutal attack on a butcher. It unfolds off-camera, behind the downed shutter of a meat shop. Politician Vicky Singh (Sumeet Vyas), leading a procession of aggressive, slogan-shouting supporters, incites the crowd with an incendiary speech. His hatchet man Chandan Singh (Sharib Hashmi) does the rest.
As trouble erupts and spreads, a video of the incident goes viral and the politician’s fledgeling career is pushed to the brink, a reputed adman, Rahab Ahmed (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), passing through his hometown on his way to a literary festival where a book authored by his wife is scheduled for release, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rahab, who has returned to work in India after a successful stint in the US, witnesses Nivedita ‘Nivi’ Singh (Bhumi Pednekar), a politician’s daughter, trying to fight off a bunch of armed men. He intervenes, oblivious of the risk involved, and earns the ire of the politician.
At the behest of a social media adviser (played by stand-up comedian Appurv Gupta), Vicky Singh floats a ‘love jihad’ rumour. The demagogue is unmindful of the devastating consequences of the false narrative and fully aware of the benefits he can reap by inciting his easy-to-sway base.
Rahab is sucked into a life-threatening situation that spirals out of control as the night wears on and Vicky Singh’s hit squad sets off in pursuit of a man they do not even know.
The mayhem Afwaah extends from the armed goons scouring the streets to the lit fest frat celebrating in a fort decked up for the occasion. While the former will stop at nothing to carry out their leader’s diktat, the latter are too comfortably ensconced in their bubble (where they have gathered, one can safely presume, to hold forth on creativity and freedom) may not be in a hurry to offer any sort of resistance to the mob.
As Rahab and Nivi run for cover, the latter spots a snake slithering out of a burrow. She warns Rahab to watch out. But the serpent is obviously the least of the threats that he faces. There is venom in the air and neither the two nor the audience can guess how things will turn out.
Caught between the lynch mob and their self-serving master is a radicalised foot soldier who has outlived his utility. He, too, looks for safety and finds it in a truck carrying animals presumably for slaughter. What dies a number of times during the adman’s flight is common sense even as the girl with him has the gumption to stand up.
The police, represented by a corrupt inspector, Sandeep Tomar (Sumit Kaul), is happy to do Vicky Singh’s bidding. A female constable, Riya Rathod (Bhanu TJ), has her hands tied for reasons that are both personal and professional.
A worker at the politician’s farmhouse is killed and Riya Rathod is entrusted with the job to ensure that word of the cold-blooded murder does not get out.
Afwaah is an indictment of politics that thrives on driving wedges between communities. While its blows are not always punchy, the film picks its targets and takes a side judiciously and does not flinch from going all the way with its abhorrence for forces that revel in swimming in troubled waters.
The camerawork (by Colombian cinematographer Mauricio Vidal) and the background score (by Czech composer Karel Antonin, whose credits include Mishra’s Netflix film Serious Men) lend Afwaah a distinctive texture and sound, while Atanu Mukherjee’s editing creates the staccato tempo that enhances the jumpiness at the heart of the two-hour film.
Lead actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui reunites with his Serious Men director to play a role that is poles apart from the one that he essayed in the 2020 film. He is a small-town man who has ventured out into the world and made it big.
His lines are peppered with English but at the outset the audience is informed that he still thinks in Hindi. The dichotomy gives the character of Rahab Ahmed an intriguing twist that Siddiqui accentuates with the aid of subtle histrionic sleights.
Bhumi Pednekar as the runaway girl who knows not where she is going but is acutely aware of where she isn’t hits all the right notes. Sumeet Vyas as the suave but brazenly opportunistic politico who manipulates ingrained prejudices to ease his path to power etches out a hateful figure without taking to recourse to stock mannerisms.
No matter on which side of the divide one stands, Afwaah isn’t a film to be dismissed lightly. It will, now and for times to come, serve as a record of an era in which we are a false alarm away from an eruption of horrific violence – a state of affairs analogous to the images that the theme song (Aaj yeh basant, composed by Shamir Tandon with lyrics by Dr Sagar) conjures up – mustard fields yielding poppy seeds and a bumble-bee burning a butterfly’s wings with the help of a firefly.