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 Scroll.in. “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.
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.