‘Afwaah’ (Rumour) is in Audi 1. ‘The Kerala Story’ is in Audi 4. ‘Afwaah’ has two shows in a day, ‘The Kerala Story’ has six. There are about a dozen people in Audi 1, half of them I recognise from India International Centre (IIC), India Habitat Centre (IHC) or from Ganga Dhaba in JNU. We all nod politely. Outside Audi 4, there is an excitable crowd. Both groups are soon going to enter their echo chambers.
Good old Sudhir Mishra serves it up loud and thick. There is ‘love jihad’, vigilantism, mob lynching, Muslims suspected of carrying beef, fake news, viral videos, feverish TV anchors, WhatsApp University, Twitter trolls, trigger-happy cops, custodial deaths, fake encounters, corrupt politicians, feudal lords, patriarchy, misogyny, impotent intellectuals, and armchair activists. Maybe, he missed caste atrocity, Naxalism, LGBTQ+ rights or maybe those too are there somewhere hidden in this frenetic, breathless, chaotic saga.
Mishra holds a mirror to all that has been going in our country in the last few years, which according to him is not exactly Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav as the slogans everywhere would have you believe. His critics can claim he only trains his lens on all that’s wrong with the country, the fact that this humongous, vast, and varied country surges ahead with its 1.42 billion dreams is lost on him.
But it is important for a filmmaker to talk about all that is wrong around him. If 50 years later, someone views the film, they should know this was the filmmaker’s milieu, a part of it at least if not the whole. As international audiences watching it soon on OTT should know. Mishra sets the film in Rajasthan, opulent and oppressive, and tells the tale through Rahab Ahmed (an out of sorts Nawazuddin Siddiqui who never really settles into his role), a local hero who has made it big as a marketing and advertising whiz kid in the US, who now wants to give it back to his hometown Sambalpur, a hell hole in the great expanse of the desert.
Rahab’s cool, red Range Rover is soon entangled in the rough and tumble of an Indian election, fought by the rising politician Vicky Bana (a unidimensional Sumeet Vyas who is mostly giving orders to bump off someone). His fiancé Nivedita ‘Nivi’ Singh (Bhumi Pednekar, excellent, the only one who invests in her role and rises above the chaos all around her), is on the run from home as she can’t take the violence Vicky unleashes to win at any cost.
Many twists and turns later, Nivi and Rahab end up together and their video together goes viral. It’s termed ‘love jihad’, a Muslim man forcing a would-be bride to elope with him. Meanwhile, the corrupt cop on the take, Sandeep Tomar (Sumeet Kaul), has botched up the killing of Vicky’s trusted aid Chandan (Sharib Hashmi, very good as a bewildered and harried lieutenant) — Vicky wants him out as he know too much of dark side of the election campaign. On the run, Chandan’s path cross Nivi and Rahab. By the middle of the film, a lot of people are chasing lot many more. There are mad crowds baying for blood and the rumour mill at full throttle.
‘Afwaah’ touched upon too many themes but it doesn’t dive into any of them. There is not a still moment in the film to pause and ponder why and how ‘love jihad’ or vigilantism or fake news are propagated, how they are fanned, what is the social structure which lets them flourish. At times Sudhir Mishra’s film comes across as one of those breathless TV news shows which give 100 stories in 60 minutes.