Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah, produced by Anubhav Sinha, is a timely exploration of how expressing our socio-political opinions and possessing the courage to confront bigotry can end up being a liability in our lives. The film points out how social media becomes more of a curse rather than a boon as there is no shortage of people in our society, who lack unbiased reasoning and even civility, to orchestrate online harassment or cyberbullying. This, at the slightest provocation without bothering to verify facts. While making for extremely relevant viewing, the film, in spite of having its strong moments, is not without its flaws.
Vicky Bana (Sumeet Vyas) is a political leader whose election rally passing through a Muslim neighborhood turns into a mobilised riot due to his inflammatory speech. His sidekick, Chandan Singh (Sharib Hashmi), along with his goons, are caught on camera killing a butcher. The video goes viral putting Vicky’s political career in jeopardy. His fiancée, Nivedita ‘ Nivi’ Singh (Bhumi Pednekar), is a liberal-minded woman who disapproves of Vicky’s methods. She soon realizes that her father, a strong political leader of yesteryear, is also hand-in-glove with Vicky. Being suffocated by the venomous attitude of the males in her household, she decides to run away from them. Rahab Ahmed (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a US-returned-ad filmmaker, has visited the town to attend the literary festival, where his wife, Nandita (Eisha Chopra), is to discuss her book. As the henchmen of Vicky locate Nivi and try to convince her to return, Rahab tries to help her. Vicky arrives on the spot but Nivi takes advantage of the situation and escapes with Rahab. At the same time, Inspector Sandeep Tomar (Sumit Kaul) is assigned by Nivi’s father to execute Chandan so that the political career of his future son-in-law is saved. How the lives of these individuals intersect over the course of a night and what happens thereafter forms the narrative spine of the film.
Afwaah moves like a political thriller where Mishra expresses his deep concern and anguish regarding the present state of intolerance and hate-mongering in India. The narrative strategy feels like a creative blend of his two earlier films, Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin (1987) and Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1997). Though the film shuns naming any individual or political party or even naming the place where the events of the film unfold, the dramatic moments showcased in the film are easily relatable to recent incidents in the country – the victims of a riot taking refuge in a library signifies how the students of one of the premiere institutes of our nation were brutally attacked by police authorities on their campus; the butcher pleading for his life before his assaulter shows how an instance of unselfish bravery is misrepresented as love-jihad for political gains; the use of WhatsApp to mobilise a mob for hunting down a truck presumed to be carrying India’s ‘holy meat’ for slaughter. Mishra, along with his co-writers Nisarg Mehta and Shiva Bajpai, constructs the film’s screenplay on the bedrock of these burning issues, making for some compelling viewing.
Afwaah places its two major female characters in strong positions against their male counterparts. Nivi is an educated woman, who does not hesitate to take shelter in the house of a Muslim friend and refuses to be a part of a family where political concerns take precedence over humanity. She protects Rahab from getting killed and prefers to stay with him until he has reached back home safely. Riya Rathod (TJ Bhanu), a junior inspector, is compelled to follow orders blindly as well as share a bed with her superior, Sandeep Tomar (Sumit Kaul). But she keeps her humanity intact, refusing to take an innocent life just to maintain her job. The film also makes a comment on so-called liberal-minded people with its brutal criticism of how when it matters most, they conveniently shun themselves away from inconvenient responsibilities.
Despite Mishra’s honest intentions, there are times he loses his grasp over the narrative of the film. The riot sequence that acts as a prelude to the film is staged in a rather unconvincing manner, where we miss feeling the horror of the violence. Similarly, Rahab and Nivi fleeing from the clutches of the goons never creates the kind of tension it should. One event follows another in a manner to keep the storyline of the film moving forward but without letting us engage enough with the issues at its core. Post-interval, some of the scenes, such as Nivi rebuking a college student for believing in the doctored video or Rahab explaining the futility of a distorted piece of information become didactic. Even Chandan’s fluctuation of moods is flimsy to say the least.
The cinematography by Mauricio Vidal diligently captures the grit, tension and trauma of the characters. The sound design by Kunal Lolsure helps in creating the sharp ambience of stark reality that pervades the film. Even the background score by Karel Antonn is appropriate to the spirit depicted in the film. However, while editing by Atanu Mukherjee does keeps the chain of events going at an even pace, the editing falls short in evoking tension and dramatic momentum in the film when it should.
Bhumi Pednekar, as the feisty and forbearing Nivi, is in fine form, making sure we totally empathize with her ordeals in the film. Sharib Hashmi, as the bigoted and murderous Chandan, plays his role with with aplomb. TJ Bhanu delivers a realistic performance with her understated act. She is, in fact, one of the most believable characters in the film. Sumit Kaul, as a police officer, matches the rest of the cast step for step with his credible act. But surprisingly, it is the central performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui that surprisingly disappoints. He portrays his role with such detachment that it becomes very difficult to feel for his character. While he has his moments, Siddiqui is unable to go above the writing and fails to give sufficient flesh and blood to Rahab.
Afwaah had all the elements to become one of the most significant films of the year. The issues the film addresses are current, political, highly relevant and extremely thought-provoking. That itself makes Afwaah important viewing as very few filmmakers like Mishra have the spine to address such concerns today. Sadly though, Afwaah falls short of being among his best.
Hindi, Thriller, Drama, Color
See the trailer of the film here.