An Insignificant Man

Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla.

India 2016. 97 mins.

Tellingly, the symbol for Indian party AAP is a brush. Which is apt, as their political vision boils down to one sentence – they want to clean up. Clean up the forest of bribes, corruption, fraud and humbug, which for too many years have plagued Indian politics. Clean up the politicians who can be bought, and who often pays citizens money or alcohol in exchange for their votes. Clean up in all the concealed deals, which, for instance, spell unnecessarily high electrical bills for some of the country’s poorest. In short: tidying up and bringing ideals back to Indian politics. The man behind this simple, and some might say, naive, vision, is Arvind Kejriwal, who laboriously fights his way through the political system to establish AAP, which stands for Aam Aadmi Party, or the Common Man’s Party. The struggle, and its accompanying journey, are documented in great detail by two young, Indian film makers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla. Their film An Insignificant Man premiered in Toronto last year. Since then, it has been screened, amongst other places, in Tromsø, Göteborg and, imminently, at the Copenhagen CPH:DOX. This is the climax of an over two-year long film journey which, in many ways, echos the political voyage: ”We were told there was something very interesting happening in Delhi,” Vinay Shukla explains via Skype, continuing: ”So, we decided to relocate from Bombay to Delhi in order to follow the events up close. We were often told that we were wasting our time, but we could see with our own eyes that something big was about to happen.”

Politics as entertainment. The big thing about to happen, was Arvind Kejriwal succeeded in turning his idealistic and revolutionary thoughts into a tangible, political movement, which slowly is growing in strength. It is precisely this portrait of  a political movement, which is the truly interesting thing about An Insignificant Man. How a political movement is conceived, how it grows, what obstacles it meets en route, and how it can succeed. This is the theme of the film, which unfolds in a classic fly-on-the-wall style, a conscious choice by the young film makers: ”In India, we are so used to politics being gradually reduced to entertainment, a performance. So, we wanted to depict a more tangible and realistic version of politics. The paradox is, although we are the largest democracy in the world, most of us remain distanced from the democratic ideals about taking an active part in politics, attending meetings and discussing. By being a fly on the wall over such a long period of time, we hope to clarify that politics is not just entertainment but also something tangible in the world and among people,” explains Khuskboo Ranka.

More than two years of recordings created in excess of 400 hours of raw footage, which was then edited down to a 100 mins documentary. The selection process used curiousity as criteria: “Both Khuskboo and I are political novices. We knew nothing about political movements and activism when we started this project. As a result, we did not have any prejudices that would interfere with the film. At the same time, we let our curiosity guide us in deciding which cuts should make the final film,” Vinay Shukla explains.

There is enough to be curious about when watching the film. The story is fascinating in itself; a reserved man who challenges the established system by daring to dream big. Simultaneously, the film demonstrates the difficulty in converting ideas into real politics.  First of all, there were all the internal fights underway. In the film, we witness, among other things, how the many volunteers, the driving force behind AAP, also become a hindrance. Increasingly, they look out for number one and want to front the party themselves, although Kejriwal maintains that the role of the volunteers is to locate suitable candidates and not point to themselves. Several of film scenes paint a gradually more complex  picture of Kejriwal as person. It looks like he is becoming power-hungry as he gradually realises that many plan to vote for him.  One of the film’s strengths is that it does not unambiguously praise Kejriwal, but rather the courage to make a change. Currently, the AAP is in power in Delhi and about to mobilise in more Indian states where they are looking to challenge the power of the established parties. However, Kejriwal is still being accused of being more of an activist than serious politician, and the AAP’s reputation has suffered from many scandals, so the road towards fulfilling the vision is by no means reached.

Money from the people.The creation of the film is not only the result of the diligent, hard work of two film makers over a two-year period, in itself a small movement; namely the use of Crowdsourcing to finance the recording. In India, documentary film receives very little financial help, and hardly anything for political ones, hence Shukla and Ranka decided to go down an alternative route. Their Crowdfunding campaign aimed for 20.00 dollar  but instead landed a massive 120,000 dollar, making it one of the country’s most successful Crowdfunbding campaigns ever. The vast majority of the money came from Indians, and Shukla explains the willingness to donate thus: “I think many people are getting increasingly fed up with mainstream media’s one-sided coverage of politics as entertainment. They want to know more about politics on a human level, so I believe it worked to our advantage that we were not journalists but two outsiders mostly used to make short fictional film and very green about political films,” Vinay Shukla says.

The success of the film and its campaign, enabled Shukla and Ranka to establish a smaller network of Indian film makers who want to create political films. At the moment, for instance, they are helping a friend make a film about the death penalty in India. Finally, as I ask the two film makers what they hope to achieve with the film, they answer almost in unison: “Many Indians have a Karma-like relationship with politics, where they think we get as deserved. But, hopefully, our film will illustrate how action can lead to change. That activism can make a difference.”


More information and trailer here:

The film was previously screened at the Tromsø festival and will in March be shown at the Copenhagen CPH:DOX festival.

Modern Times Review