Interview with the veteran film-maker, whose upcoming film Afwaah is set to release on May 5.
In his latest film Afwaah, veteran film-maker Sudhir Mishra highlights the dangers of rumours and how they can cause irreparable harm. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bhumi Pednekar, and Sumeet Vyas, Afwaah tracks a man caught in a whirlpool of communally charged campaigns simply because of his Muslim identity. In an interview to Frontline, Mishra talked at length about his latest film. Excerpts:
One of the central themes in the film is the power of social media and how it can be manipulated to spread fake news. It almost feels like social media is also a character in the film. What inspired you to make a movie about fake news and its impact on society in Afwaah?
The main idea was that what if the monster chasing you is just a rumour? And the rumour can easily be amplified using social media. Who you are and what you represent ceases to matter. And then there is always an overly excited mob always ready to receive the rumour and act on it. It’s terrifying.
You can actually start a rumour about anybody. If you amplify it, and have enough backing, then it no longer matters what the truth is, even if it involves a dead person. Rumours seem to be the most popular weapons of destruction in today’s India, enabled heavily by social media.
Did you take inspiration from any real-life incidents for making this film? What kind of stories were you looking for when you decided to make this film? Did you meet people who were victims of mob lynchings or love jehad? Did you read any relevant books?
I don’t work like that. My inspiration is real life. I learn from life, people and the things around me. I have been told that I waste a lot of time interacting with useless people. They don’t understand. I am a soaker, you know? I like meeting with all sorts of people. Everybody teaches you. All the time.
There is an American poet who lives near the mountains. She says that poems come to her from across the mountains. It is similar. The stories pass me by. I don’t mean to mystify the process, but that’s how it is for me. You just need to be a good enough antenna. The ideas come to you. You just need to be ready to interact with it.
A lot of my friends, a lot of my contemporaries, or even some seniors have told me that they don’t understand how I write, because I let the unconscious sometimes govern. I don’t write very rationally. I am not recommending this as a method to anyone.
Any real life incidents that might have impacted or inspired you to make the film?
It’s all around us, no? It’s in the news. It’s in real life. It’s everywhere. People seem to be willing to believe the worst about each other. Women can be very easily disturbed by a rumour. You spread a rumour about a woman and they will get impacted because the society is such. Even successful women are punished because of rumours.
There is a sense of anger building up, which is creating a base for rumours to thrive in. People have an imagined victimhood; hate thrives in this environment. People are looking for excuses to spread hate. It’s all around us.
Also Read | ‘Afwaah’: A wake-up call for the digital age
Were you apprehensive when you set out to make Afwaah? Were there any fears when you decided to pursue this film?
There’s no such thing as absence of fear, because fear is something that makes you survive. I’m afraid of COVID, therefore I take a vaccine. You have to learn to walk the fear and be with it. I cannot pretend to be fearless. But what do you do when you have to make films?
Afwaah deals with the terrifying truth about politicians who can casually engineer communal riots for political gains. The film also deals with how fake news and false social media campaigns can result in mob lynchings. Do you think it is necessary for a filmmaker to engage with or at least important to touch upon the politics of the present? How important do you think it is for filmmakers to address social issues?
Fundamentally, I believe, to each his own. Everything can be political if you come to think of it. As a political person, I also understand that a film doesn’t have to be directly based on politics in order to be political.
But yes, film-makers need to react to their times. We are at the cusp of a change. Technology is changing. People are changing, the politics is changing. Cinema is no longer considered central. I think it’s important for the audience to come out and see films. I think because the theatrical experience is important, especially in a film like this, where you come and sit as a community and you see a film together, interact with it.
Looking at the current trend in Bollywood of making hypernationalist and jingoistic, hyper-masculine films, do you think there is a tendency to sensationalise the story rather than making cinema that engages with the minds of the people in a more refined way?
It has changed and not changed. Some things remain the same. You think of a film, you write a script. One of the biggest changes in the industry is that now there are many more women working here. It’s a less patriarchal place now, but of course it is not enough.
Cinema as a medium has always been used for propaganda by everybody, right? Hollywood is also, a lot of it is American propaganda. But propaganda is not cinema. Making a film like Afwaah was important to me because people will say that no one intervened in these times. But here it is. This film is an intervention. It is an attempt to intervene in these times.
Did you expect to face censorship issues?
A lot of people were surprised that the film was not censored. And a lot of different kinds of people liked the film, too.
Many of your films, including Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and Chameli, have been critically acclaimed and commercially successful. How do you balance artistic integrity with commercial viability when making a film?
I don’t try to balance the two. I think a filmmaker has a tendency and certain proclivity. This is the way I can make films and this is what I do. Luckily, some of them work. The only way you can make a film is if you agree with it. In a way, you are making the film for yourself. By making it for myself, I don’t mean pandering to myself. I just have to like what I am doing. It has to come from within.
I am not always that naive. Sometimes, there are other considerations too. And sometimes you take an actor that works and something like that. But mostly, it just has to come from within.
“People have an imagined victimhood; hate thrives in this environment. People are looking for excuses to spread hate. It’s all around us.”Sudhir MishraDirector, Afwaah
Your films often explore complex human relationships and societal issues. How do you decide on the subject matter, and what is your creative process like when developing a script?
An idea can strike you at any time. You can be anywhere, walking somewhere. It can be at very odd times. I won’t describe how odd. You have to wait for it to fester. If you’re a professional filmmaker and a storyteller, everything triggers you. In one sense, that’s your default mechanism.
Not everything seems so interesting in the beginning, but once you start working on it, it pans out differently too. There are things that remain with you for a month, month and a half, and then you say, this seems interesting. You work on it and sometimes even after that, it sort of doesn’t work.
It’s kind of after a while that the script writes itself. For a while, you sit on it. Things keep coming to you. I don’t tend to force it. Sometimes I take the script and give it to someone to work on it. In the meanwhile, I’m thinking about it. When I am writing, I am basically making a blueprint to direct. So, a lot of times I’m doing something that not everybody will understand. It can be frustrating for others sometimes.
So the process also involves taking feedback from others while you work on the script?
Sometimes, in the process of narrating it to somebody, something new comes up. It happens when you are trying to communicate your ideas to someone and try and tell them what you want to do. That process is interesting. It’s not just about their feedback but the very process of sharing the idea with someone.
Your films often feature strong female characters who challenge the status quo. In Afwaah, Bhumi Pednekar is shown as a rebel who doesn’t give in to the pressures of patriarchal men such as her father and fiance and ultimately takes control of her life. How important is it to you to have diverse representation in your films?
I don’t think like that. It’s probably the influence of my great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and all the women in my life. I just write the female characters from within. It is always more interesting to work with women because they allow moments of vulnerability to show up. And they they go through those emotions much more easily without any pretence. Sometimes it’s more interesting to write the female characters and then female actors tend to play them with a lot of boldness. For instance, you cannot think about Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi without Chitrangada (Singh).