Indian society is passing through turbulent times that often border on surrealism. Over the last couple of decades we have come to experience riots, lynching, moral policing, politically motivated killings and vigilantism. The intensity of all these processes has been consistently on the rise and the phenomenon of rumour mongering has been pivotal in all of them.

‘Afwaah’ (rumours), the latest offering from writer and director Sudhir Mishra, is a reflection of what India has been witnessing and continues to witness. The movie, which is now streaming on Netflix, stands out on many counts.

To begin with it is a brave attempt by the makers to show the dark and grim reality of our times. The story revolves around an advertising icon, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, landing in a fix when he innocently tries to help a politician’s daughter, played by Bhumi Pednekar.

She is trying to get away from her engagement to a violent politician riding high on bigotry. The former’s identity as a person from the minority Muslim community is a potent weapon for those chasing the two.

Mishra’s film is a telling commentary on what has been happening over the last several years. As a brave and brilliant filmmaker he presents the happenings straight.

It needs to be pondered that ‘Afwaah’ is a film that has come at a time when propaganda films promoted by the Right Wing camps are ruling the roost in Bollywood. ‘The Kashmir Files’ and ‘Kerala Story’ are just two examples of how films are being dished out to the Indian masses with narratives that have the potential to polarise communities, and deliver political dividends.

They are also attempts to present distorted half truths while peddling fiction as facts. It has been reported at length that many more such projects are in the pipeline ahead of the all important Lok Sabha polls of 2024. ‘Afwaah’ stands out as a counter to such films.

‘Afwaah’ is being plainly described as a ‘mystery thriller’. But it is much more than that. It is a relatable political drama and easily falls in the category of some very sensible films like ‘Mulk’ and ‘Article 15’ that have come about in the last few years.

Weaning away a bit from the contents of the film it is essential to go back in time to understand how afwaahs or rumours came to be a mainstream political tool riding high on achieving communal and caste polarisations. It is a fact that rumour mongering has always accompanied social disturbances, but it has been only in the last three decades that this has had a different connotation and machination.

The arrival of social media tools and platforms have taken it to a different level, after the initial experimentation with the SMS, to heights that Nazi propagandist Paul Joseph Goebbels would be proud of.

Since it is a time when every socio-political phenomenon is being seen through the prism of the ‘Gujarat Model’, the same applies here too. “The first time the efficacy of rumour mongering was tested was on the day former chief minister Keshubhai Patel faced a rebellion from Shankersinh Vaghela. It was the day there when idols of Lord Ganesha drinking milk made headlines.

“It was in Gujarat that the hitherto nonexistent terminology of ‘Love Jihad’ first came to be used. During the 2002 riots that were marked by an anti Muslim pogrom, the rumours were spread through word of mouth and things rose to altogether different levels in the coming decades as social media applications and tools became powerful,” recounted a veteran journalist who has been chronicling the state and its promoted ‘model’ for the last three decades.

Of course things have now come to a point where terminologies like ‘Land Jihad’, ‘Mazaar Jihad’ and what not are being circulated. The two latest examples that stand out are the recent episodes of targeting minorities in Purola in Uttarakhand along with the targeting of a Muslim doctor in Una over a screenshot of a social media post as well as the happenings in Chamba in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.

The country has witnessed reported lynchings over the allegations of serving or storage of beef in the last few years in states like Haryana, Rajasthan and Bihar. Everyone is aware of the activities of cow vigilantes in the cow belt.

There are fresh reports from Gujarat about Right Wing groups planning to extend their vigilantism to dubious hotels which facilitate ‘love jihad’ by renting out rooms to youths from ‘other’ faith. These activists would keep a watch on small hotels in Ahmedabad and other cities to look out for suspicious looking youths who check in with Hindu girls.

“Though the foot soldiers of right wing organisations in Gujarat have always been active against interfaith marriages, this is the first time they are targeting the hotels where the couples sneak in to enjoy some ‘privacy’. These activists had burnt copies of ‘Kamasutra’, waylaid people transporting cows, attacked art galleries for displaying ‘objectionable’ paintings, disrupted screenings of films not to their liking and vandalised fashion shows for being against Indian ‘culture’,” pointed out an observer.

‘Afwaah’ touches upon most of these real issues in daily lives of a common Indian. This reporter has witnessed the impact of rumour mongering on the social fabric on several occasions while covering violence in states like Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Uttarakhand.

An interesting instance in the first decade of this century was that of a fighter plane breaking the sound barrier above the skies of Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar that was taken to be a bomb blast with media teams scurrying to old Ahmedabad.

Another instance was of angry mobs of the minority community holding protests in Uttarakhand somewhere in 2010 or 2011 over the name of a religious figure printed on footwear while no one had actually possessed or seen the footwear.

The first thing the governments resort to in times of trouble is to shut down the internet and sms services. How this shutdown actually plays out is another matter.

Mishra has also brilliantly brought about the fact that social media is a double edged sword.

Mishra has used a platform called ‘Qwitter’ to drive home the point. He has shown that the Frankenstein being created by the right wing in the shape of ugly and unruly mobs has the potency to even devour its creators.

The movie hits home on a positive as well as a sarcastic note when the animals being carried around in a truck and believed to be bovines by the viewers throughout actually turn out to be donkeys.