Afwaah, director Sudhir Mishra’s latest film, holds a mirror to our times, helmed by Nawazuddin Sidiqqui, Bhumi Pednekar, Sumeet Vyas and Sharib Hashmi in critical roles. A young woman from a political family flees a marriage (a political alliance) she is being forced into, as she abhors her fiance’s politics of polarisation. She comes across a good Samaritan who tries to help her. Her crime: rejecting an ecosystem of hate. His crime: he is from a minority. The situation snowballs, assuming a horrific dimension all too real in our times – weaponisation of hate through fake news for political and electoral mobilisation. The writing of the film, by Sudhir Mishra, Shiva Shankar Bajpai and Nisarg Mehta, is deeply political and aware, with an empathetic gaze.
An angry lament that throws into sharp relief some of the greatest fault lines of India today, Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah is a gut punch. The film minces no words, and shows us how our ability to reason is muted, how easy it is to orchestrate hate, how apathetic we are as a people – across divisions of privilege – and how acutely we all sit at the precipice of getting lynched, caused by just one text, one share, one video at a time.
Apathy is deeply entwined with power, and this emerges across various ideas of power in the film. Whether it is the power the local feudalistic young politician wields over his goons and the police officer, or what the same police officer holds over his subordinate who he instructs and controls both sexually and at work, or the power she holds over a hapless victim turning to law and order for help. The chain of power and oppression is starkly visible, and critically so. The power a man is expected to hold over a woman – such that shooting her seems justified to his loyal goon. The power that an underconfident goon can hold if he points the gun at his friends and bullies. The power that a coward sitting behind a screen holds, to manipulate an entire city, inciting riots. The cyclic nature of power, its headiness, and what it turns people into – with no answerability – is acute in the film. This termite-infested system, the nexus of power and its apathy, is exposed in each frame.
This power is not only wielded in physical worlds. Politicians recognise that devices control our minds. And when they control what we see, and how we see it, they mute our ability to reason. A culture of stupidity reinforced by high-decibel shouting that mutes any space or ability to doubt what we see. The lines between fake and real have been wiped out, and this comes at the cost of innocent lives. Afwaah exposes how worthlessly lives are lost as a cost of this complete lack of ability to reason. As AI becomes more and more intelligent, being able to decipher between what is fake and what is real will become more and more difficult. With more and more at stake each day. Historically and culturally, India was about those who ‘obeyed’. This reality is manifested in the acceptance of hate so easily, and the obedience and allegiance to a master. Even if that allegiance gets you to attack an innocent man, a man you know, its allegiance above all. Without reason. Without question. This reality tied to what were already deep religious fault lines, with hatred that is easy to sell and a defunct ability to reason, creates a nation of violent, easy-to-manipulate mules.
Videos of violence and harassment reach us across social media – since people choose to spectate or record, rather than to intervene and help. Helping comes with its own fears, given there are seldom stories of protection of Good Samaritans, and a system that makes intervention more complicated than ever. Afwaah identifies this, in its dialogue and protagonists. And the theatre of the absurd that we are all trapped in. Being hunted by those we know, in spaces of our own homes, within our own country. People othering those they have always known.
The question of identity in Afwaah is extremely powerful. In each plot, subplot and character, how a name defines religious identity, and the intersection of gender with this reality, are critical narratives in the terrifying times we live in. How women are pushed under the elephant leg of patriarchy each day – with little agency over body, mind and choice. Whether that is a woman born into a political family, or one in the police force. And what it means as lived experiences each day, to carry these identities in a violent, unpredictable country like ours. When can these identities become a burden, and when do they cease to matter?
Within all of this is the big question of the idea of India itself. Who are we and who do we wish to be? Afwaah has beautiful metaphors, ranging from the bizarre to the esoteric, that ask us this question. The often aspired-to erudite, urban elite come under Sudhir Mishra’s scorching gaze – and rightfully so. How these spaces – meant to be houses of intellectualism and bastions of righteousness – are shut off from reality. Where when it is time to act, those comfortable intellectuals scarper. And more so, how these exclusive spaces shut those out who threaten their sanitised worlds, even if that comes at the cost of actual death of their own morals that they choose to create spectacles of. The fault lines of class and intellectualism that create a chasm between realities – and the privileged have the comfort to ignore the actual realities on ground.
Afwaah is a necessary film. One that demands us to find our ability to reason. To question and to ask. And to find our own voices. It is a brave film in the trying times we live in – to have made it to the theatres. And at a time when it is getting increasingly impossible to decipher the real from the fake, Afwaah is more real than any rumour we hear. Because it is real.
Saumya Baijal is a Delhi-based writer, poet (English and Hindi), street theatre artist, ad woman & storyteller.