Documentary channel

Makers of stalled AAP documentary: ‘This conversation needs to happen on the big screen’

Vinay Shukla and Khushboo Ranka’s ‘An Insignificant Man’, about the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, has been stuck without a censor certificate since February.

In 2012, soon after Arvind Kejriwal formed the Aam Aadmi Party, first-time filmmakers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla went to Delhi to document the political journey. The two-member team was initially overwhelmed by the spread of the movement and their own inexperience. A third member, Vinay Rohra, joined them and as time progressed, students from Delhi colleges were trained in filmmaking to assist on the shoot. After a year and a half of shooting, Shukla and Ranka had nearly 400 hours of footage. Two years later, the duo, assisted by two editors, fashioned a 95-minute narrative on Kejriwal’s rise to the position of chief minister, which they describe as a “political thriller”.

In An Insignificant Man, Ranka and Shukla follow Kejriwal from the time he forms AAP till he gets elected as Delhi Chief Minister office for the first time in 2014. Since the duo stopped shooting at this point, the rest of Kejriwal’s journey is explained through text on the screen. The decision to closely follow AAP’s narrative in its formative months could have easily become a hagiographic project, but in a few key scenes towards the end, Kejriwal’s transformation from outsider to hardened politician becomes apparent.

The documentary has been screened at numerous countries around the world, but apart from a screening at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2016, it hasn’t been released in India. The film was refused certification in February 2017 after the Central Board of Film Certification, led by Pahlaj Nihalani, demanded no objection certificates from Kejriwal, former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The censor board also wanted six mentions of the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party to be excised. Ranka and Shukla call the decision arbitrary and have refused to seek the NOCs. Their case is being heard by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, the body of appeal within CBFC.

“Political films have always had it difficult,” Shukla told “But these demands are making it all the more difficult. Just because we have public footage, we have to take permission. You can’t name or show alive individuals, then how am I supposed to criticise them? Now, if you are a young filmmaker, will you use Mr Modi’s image in your film? It’s not just possible to take permission from individuals for a documentary. That defeats the purpose, especially for a politician or a public figure.”

Why did you choose to document Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party?
Vinay Shukla: At that point, these guys were just starting a political party and there was a lot of curiosity because of the stakes they were bringing onto the table. They were whipping up this current around themselves of being the new political alternative, but their beginnings were humble and yet they had captured the nation’s imagination. They were all over the news, they were fighting, there was a split. Both of us were divided on whether it was a good decision or a bad one to form a political party, but it felt like a classic story about this person or movement who wants to change everything.

Apart from that, both of us were completely apolitical before the film, with no direct engagement with politics, so when there is a new player, it allows you to piggyback on that subject and see it from their eyes, which is a thrill and that drew us in.

How did you get access?
Khushboo Ranka: Because it was our first film, it didn’t occur to us that we wouldn’t get permission, so we landed at their offices assuming we would be allowed. We asked and they let us, but of course, it took a few months to establish some amount of rapport with them and be allowed into the important meetings.

Did your access prove restrictive? Were there things you couldn’t film or weren’t allowed to?
Vinay: We weren’t really a priority for them. Since we were only two people with a DSLR, they felt our stuff was too trivial and they were doubtful of what we were doing. Plus, they had their own fires to fight everyday, the papers were reporting something or somebody was fighting or leaving the party. They couldn’t be less bothered about us.

Why did the film take so long to edit?
Khushboo: We decided to use a fly-on-the-wall format which precludes exposition, interviews, voiceover so we had to give information through a sequence of events, which made it difficult to strike a balance. We were first-time filmmakers, so we had to figure everything by ourselves. We were also raising funds while editing the film, which delayed it as well.

AAP’s political narrative has changed drastically since you shot the film. Did you feel like going back and shooting the film again?
Khushboo: No, we didn’t. We finished the story we wanted to tell and we felt that we put in enough seeds in the film that even address what is happening currently. The film is the story of complete outsiders who choose to become politicians and what that means, what gets lost along the way. Hopefully we have told a self-contained story which has enough to be looked on as a capsule of that time

Stopping the film at Kejriwal’s rise to the position of chief minister indicates success when the reality is different. It could also imply your tacit support.
Vinay: I think our documentary is fairly critical of AAP. Its members are normally pretty muscular on social media, but they haven’t mentioned our film at all.

Khushboo: I strongly disagree that just because we have stopped at a certain point, it could be a pro-Kejriwal film. My problem with that way of looking at things is that it completely absolves the viewer of any responsibility. Many people have had different readings. Someone told us that we had correctly portrayed him as an opportunist. Someone else read it as Kejriwal being a victim of the system. We didn’t want to be heavy-handed and have the audience assume one way or another.

The second half does not feature Kejriwal too much. Did he become aware of the documentary at some point and want to restrict your access?
Khushboo: Someone really close to him died and it seem to change him in a profound way. He went from being an idealist to a politician. He withdrew, became more of a recluse. He only did public speeches and the personal began disappearing.

Were you tempted to include direct interviews with Kejriwal or Yogendra Yadav so you could get their views on what was going on?
Vinay: Nobody wants to hear politicians because nobody trusts them. And we also realised that what a character says is not what they do. At one point in the, film we have members of AAP fighting over Kejriwal changing his mind over allowing volunteers to vote for those who will contest elections. He contradicts himself. So it was interesting to listen to what they were saying but observe what they were doing. We did have some doubts about whether the form we had chosen was right, but these guys were so used to cameras that they had a staple answer for everything.

Khushboo: If you interview people, you give them the agency to tell their own story and we didn’t want to do that.

An Insignificant Man. Image credit: Memesys Films.
An Insignificant Man. Image credit: Memesys Films.

What was Kejriwal’s reaction to the film?
Khushboo: We haven’t chased him to find out what he really thought about it, but he saw it last December and he had a very distant reaction and just said that it was “interesting”. Which is natural because documentary subjects find it very difficult to watch films on themselves.

Have you thought of uploading the film online?
Vinay: Of course we can do it, but it’s not about viewership. It’s about the way you are impacting minds. If the endgame is YouTube, then no one will make a political film.

Khushboo: What if they start censoring YouTube? These are stopgap measures. YouTube is an endless infinite ocean. We want to spend time making the film, we want to accord it a dignity of labour by showing it in screens and not hoodwinking the system. We want to screen it in a gully somewhere or just put it up on a television somewhere.

What is your release plan?
Vinay: We want to take it to the theatres, this is a conversation that needs to happen on the big screen. We want to be able to show the film wherever we like and that’s why we need a censor certificate.

Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla.
Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.