Exasperated by the lack of progress their anti-corruption movement was making, Arvind Kejriwal and a group of activists decided to form the Aam Aadmi Party in late 2012. Filmmakers Vinay Shukla and Khushboo Ranka arrived at the scene of action almost overnight to capture this movement and ended up staying on for a year and a half. What you have as a result is An Insignificant Man – a keenly observed documentary that captures AAP’s rise from political outsiders to being the majority party in the Delhi Assembly.
The film, edited from over 400 hours of footage, is being called India’s first ‘non-fiction political thriller’. It captures priceless footage like that of the now-Delhi Chief Minister cracking up while shooting a campaign ad. Or of an impassioned working-class woman assuring him “Hum power denge na aapko! (We will give you power)” at one of the many charged AAP rallies.
The film has travelled to over 50 international film festivals including Toronto, BFI London and Busan, has also won several prestigious accolades like the IDFA Bertha Grant, the Sundance Documentary Fund and more.
Ahead of its India release on 17th November after an arduous battle with the CBFC, we caught up with directors Shukla and Ranka to talk about getting rare access to the proceedings, maintaining objectivity and why they think so many people have responded positively to their film:
After hearing about Arvind Kejriwal's decision to form a political party in 2012, you packed your bags and left for Delhi almost on a whim. What thoughts went through your mind then?
Khushboo Ranka: Leaving overnight was not a big deal because we didn't have anything better to do. The prospect of moving to another city to make a film was also part of the excitement because, in a way, you're an observer to everything. Of course we didn't know what was going to happen by the end of that year but we knew that this story was interesting.
We did some preliminary research on the people that were making this party. They were complete outsiders to politics. Just the story of outsiders trying to break into the largest democracy of the world was exciting enough. Once we landed in Delhi, we realized that we had never seen images like this.
Throughout the film, the camera acts as a fly on the wall, merely observing as events unfold. People appear almost uninhibited even when being shot, which rarely ever happens. What do you think worked for you?
Vinay Shukla: We spent a year and a half turning up there every day with our camera. Beyond a point, people just stopped caring. The Aam Aadmi Party had enough firefighting to do everyday to not worry about stuff like us just hanging about in their office. Secondly, we worked very hard on making ourselves invisible. We even shot the film without tripods. That allowed us to become as unnoticeable as possible.
Everyone thought we were college flunkies and at that point, there were a lot flunkies just hanging around in those rooms. Our main challenge was always just to be in the right rooms, where the story was happening.
Do you think it's possible to maintain objectivity in documentary filmmaking? What measures did you take to ensure the same?
Khushboo: When you make a political film, it comes riddled with problems, expectations and connotations. And within that context, our attempt was to remain as non-partisan as possible, to not let our biases interfere or manipulate. We actively did everything we could to ensure this.
We even worked with international lawyers, showed them the film and allowed them to ask us questions about fair practice, misrepresentations and manipulations. We subjected ourselves to the most stringent standards internationally. We also didn't take interviews because then you're allowing the subject to narrativise.
It seems like your film and the theme of democracy are almost inextricable. Apart from the fact that you have covered the rise of the AAP in the world's largest democracy, 782 people came forward and helped you crowdfund the film. And now you're partnering with Vkaao to release the film in a way that is pretty democratic in itself. What do you think about democracy?
Khushboo: There are great flaws and challenges. But I always feel that the answer to the problems of democracy is more democracy, not less democracy. As a society, we are not beholden to the same challenges we were thousands of years ago.
The problem is updating this pre-Christ idea with the current hardware. It's also in the interest of politicians to not do that. People want more say in how they are governed. Trump, Bernie Sanders, Corbyn – they're all products of this updating of form of democracy.
Even though this film is a documentary, you have said that at its core, it has a very classical story. Arvind Kejriwal is the underdog revolutionary who has set out to bring about change. In one scene, we even see people who've quit well-paying jobs to join the movement. What do you think is it about Kejriwal’s ethos that makes people connect with him?
Vinay: More than Arvind Kejriwal's ethos, it's about the ideas that he and the AAP were championing at that point. I don't think it's personal. It's the larger ideas that democracies have struggles with – decentralization of power, more transparency, clean funding.
These ideas have found currency through various leaders. What is spectacular about the AAP is that it managed to catapult itself and capture the nation's imagination in a manner that no other party had, based on these principles.
Your film has created so much buzz which is unheard of for an independent film, let alone a political documentary. Why do you think that is?
Vinay: It's proven that there is fatigue with the kind of content that is being belted out. As artists and filmmakers, everyone is always trying to create something that is more contemporary, more relevant to the people. Somewhere we did manage to strike the right story because the AAP and Arvind Kejriwal are a story that everyone has a stake in and everybody has a view on. We would have never thought our shows would sell out weeks in advance or that we'd be having housefull shows in Dehradun, Latur, Nagpur with film lovers coming forward and saying they want these kinds of films to come to their cinemas.
Khushboo: You'd be surprised at the distribution and marketing budgets for this film. It's really a minuscule fraction of what people would spend. You definitely won't see hoardings or ads or bus posters. This particular kind of film has never been made in India. To get such access into an existing political party, with existing politicians and to see them in this uninhibited way. I don't remember seeing films in this genre. I would like to think that the audience recognises that. If I hadn't made this film and I saw something like it, I would definitely be interested.