November 7 2016
By Suman Bhuchar
ONE OF THE Indian stories at the London Film Festival last month was an overtly political one – “An Insignificant Man” charting the rise of political leader Arvind Kejriwal.
Kejriwal holds real political power now (since 2015) – the party he created Aam Aadami Party (APP) controls the capital, Delhi and he in effect is its chief minister. However the film focuses on an earlier period when it did well in its first ever elections in 2013 as a new party, but after a short period in control with support from Congress, Kejriwal resigned, forcing new elections in 2015.
The APP are hard to place on a conventional left-right political axis, but they are anti-establishment, and anti-corruption and as their name in Hindi suggests, they see themselves as political embodiment of the common man (and not beholden to ideology or any real political philosophy).
Debutant Indian filmmakers Vinay Shukla and Khushboo Ranka have not added any commentary to their film, preferring to show news footage of the day with their own visuals – creating an effect where you’re led into the story and can watch Kejriwal’s rise to power unfold before your very eyes.
Featured at several international film festivals before it came to London, it also showed in India for the first time late last month at the Mumbai Film Festival.
The 100-minute documentary was supported by grants from institutions such as the Sundance Documentary Fund, IDFA Bertha Fund and through a crowd funding campaign where it is now funded by 782 people who helped to raise US$ 120,000 (approx. £110,00/₹80 Lakhs) six times more than the targeted amount of US $20,000. (The total budget for the production was not revealed on going to press).
www.asianculturevulture.com met the filmmakers when they were in London.
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): Can you just briefly describe your background to acv readers…
Vinay Shukla (VS): My name is Vinay (Shukla), the film has been jointly co-directed and co-produced by the two of us (Khushboo Ranka) along with, Vinay Rohira, the associate director. I studied in Bombay (Mumbai) and started working on films right away, I was an assistant director on Bollywood films and set my own short film, “Raag Sarkari” in the emergency of 1975.
Khushboo Rana (KR): I am Khushboo Ranka, I am from Bombay. I was studying documentary at Goldsmiths College, London but dropped out. It wasn’t giving me what I needed and then I worked with Anand Gandhi – we co-directed our first short film together, “Continuum” (2006) and I co-wrote, “Ship of Theseus” (2012), so it’s self-taught, filmmaking.
ACV: What made you pick this subject?
KR: We were itching to do something and just picked up the camera. Once we started shooting, it grew into something bigger. We had a very small-scale home video type of approach to it and the story started growing bigger.
ACV: Why did you focus on Kejriwal? Were you interested in any current affairs type documentary or did you know him?
VS: We felt compelled (to cover this) as the story reflected a lot of conversations we found very interesting and important.
There were larger ideas that these guys were trying to engage with in terms of ideas of transparency; inner party democracy, decentralisation of power – these were issues that we found ourselves engaging with increasingly – and we still find ourselves discussing and this story became a sort of intersection for all these concerns. .
ACV: You managed to get access without any problem?
KR: Yes, it was new – nobody else was there with cameras and we got access over a period of 10 weeks (but we) shot with them for a year and half – so that familiarity was bred and cultivated over a period of time.
ACV: In terms of the story arc, you start almost literally, with what appears to be ‘an insignificant man’ or ‘an everyman’, then then over time he becomes a phenomena and a story…
VS: We were following their journey from being complete outsiders to them winning power.
ACV: You haven’t used any voiceover – you’ve just used news footage to make a link and I really applaud that but for anyone who doesn’t know much about Indian politics it might be difficult to follow?
KR: We didn’t want a voiceover or interviews because, both of us come from a fiction background and that form is attractive to us and beyond that we felt that any voiceover that we would put in, would be a very heavy handed approach to a story like this; it would necessitate some sort of a stand and make ourselves visible which we didn’t want to do at all! In a way we are also turning the lens on the media and the opinions that they had at that time.
VS: I think audiences all over the world are very evolved in terms of understanding a film-language and the response we’ve been getting is they feel it’s like a political thriller, that’s unfolding as they are going with it, which was a conscious cinematic choice.
ACV: They only seemed to have one woman candidate (Santosh Koli) and then the poor woman had an accident and she subsequently died. Kejriwal was weeping at the funeral. Where were the women of the party?
KR: That’s a good observation. A major criticism is somehow they are not able to be as inclusive in trying to get more women in more leadership positions.
ACV: Also does the party cross religious and caste lines? It was hard to tell… It appeared to be Hindu and very middle class.
KR: I think that’s something that is very interesting about them. You’ll see commentators saying that they are an interesting urban phenomenon which means that they do manage to traverse some lines of cast and religion. They are not a traditional vote bank kind of party so they won’t have traditional sort of Muslim vote banks, Dalit vote banks (common for parties in India to appeal directly to religious and caste groups, especially outside of the big cities) . They have people who like them and despise them across these lines.
ACV: What is the environment for documentaries like in India? We have seen the reception towards fictional feature films change over the years but few Indian documentaries have ever broken through in the West…
KR: The documentary scene in India doesn’t have a huge range but there are some film-makers who are just amazing – Anand Patwardhan, Deepa Dhanraj, there’s even Ashim Ahluwalia* who made a fantastic film on call centre employees (John and Jane). So in terms of the way that the Indian landscape offers stories, it’s hugely underrepresented in documentary.
For example I can’t remember another election film which showed us a ‘behind the scenes’ that happens in Indian politics and when we started following these guys we realised that here was a chance to do something which is so immediate and important as a democracy and yet there isn’t a documentation of it.
I mean, as artists one of the most important things you do is you reflect on what is happening and we realised that here was a story that had the potential to remain relevant for a long time. So I would say that in that sense, we felt we had the opportunity to do something rare.
ACV: What is your strategy for this film? Will it get general distribution?
VS: We are trying to get the film widely seen – a large population doesn’t get to the multiplexes. We are looking at ways to ensure we reach the people outside of cinema theatres through online and offline mediums, such as pop up screenings all across India, and travel with film to show students and others in smaller towns.
ARVIND KEJRIWAL can be seen at the end of this film, mouthing these very words, “I am an insignificant man” but his effect on the political system at least in Delhi would suggest anything but…
As the visuals end come to a close, we learn that the Aam Aadami Party Kejriwal runs, won 67 out of the 70 seats up for grabs in 2015 in Delhi. He is the chief minister of the national capital city. It is a stunning achievement for a man whose party is just over three years old as documented in this film.
It is a remarkable turn of events and Vinay Shukla’s and Khushboo Ranka’s eminently watchable documentary charts an unlikely beginning for India’s newest political star and the utter firmament he created in 2013, when he burst on the scene, quite literally from nowhere.
While some may think the filmmakers have been quite neutral in their stance, this is a film that portrays Kejriwal’s politics as essentially benign and positive. The other parties would beg to differ and while Delhi may be flying on the AAP broomstick (its symbol), the rest of India is far from convinced. For now.
It’s a shame the other parties did not let the filmmakers into their campaigns the way Kejriwal did, but they had more to lose, one supposes. This film may grow in stature and become something of an important record – the BJP, the current party in power at the national level, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had quite humble beginnings too.
Only the next General election will show whether Kejriwal was just a local phenomenon and a product of Congress’ ineptitude or something deeper and yet more interesting. (Sailesh Ram)
ACV rating:*** (out five)
A teaser they made for the Toronto International Film Festival (where the film had its world premiere).