By calling it a “non-fiction political thriller”, filmmakers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla show how aware they are of the significance of their documentary, An Insignificant Man, which follows the Aam Aadmi Party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal. The film attempts to offer a glimpse into the incomparable spectacle that is Indian electoral politics, and will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.
“With this film, we’ve probably only unearthed the top soil. There’s scope for so much more, as far as documenting our politics is concerned,” says Ranka. The documentary, produced by filmmaker Anand Gandhi, was initially called Proposition for a Revolution but Ranka, who co-wrote Ship of Theseus, says they felt the need to change the name for the very practical reason that An Insignificant Man rolls off the tongue more easily. “It’s cleaner and more poetic. We also realised that people have very negative associations with ‘revolution’, as most identified the word with something violent,” she says.
In the beginning, all that the two filmmakers were sure of was that they wanted to make an election documentary. This was in 2012, as Delhi was preparing for a significant assembly election in the following year. “We had this idea for making a documentary that contrasted the war rooms of the different political parties as they planned their election strategies. We didn’t get any response from the Congress or the BJP, but we had good access to the Aam Aadmi Party, so we decided to follow them for a year and make it about them,” says Shukla, who has previously written and directed the award-winning short film, Bureaucracy Sonata.
The party itself made sure that the duo had full access, including to Kejriwal himself. Shukla explains, “At that time, nobody else was interested in them. They weren’t taken seriously. But we made it a point to turn up everyday and that convinced them that we were in it for the long haul. We ended up with 400 hours of footage.”
Their fly-on-the-wall approach ensured the duo captured some truly unguarded moments. Shukla says, “We tried to get some interviews initially, but then they started giving us the usual spiel that they had obviously rehearsed many times before. So then we decided to just shoot what was happening, without asking any questions.” It helped that they were using only a DSLR to shoot; they were able to disappear into the background and record more authentic footage of AAP and Kejriwal.
“Initially, we didn’t know what we would do with the footage, whether it would even be useful, ultimately,” says Ranka, adding, “It felt like a sensory overload because we had never seen anything like what we were recording.” But they found their audience even as they continued shooting. The few friends that they showed the footage to were quick to point out the importance of their documentation.
The documentary has already won some very prestigious grants, including the Sundance Fund and the Busan Fund, and the TIFF premiere could be the beginning of a successful round of the festival circuit. Ranka says, “One of our friends from Egypt who had been one of the activists at Tahrir Square, wanted the footage because it showed how a popular movement can transition to electoral politics in a democracy. That’s when we realised that An Insignificant Man could be a manual for such movements.”