Between 2011 and 2014, the establishment from Cairo to Delhi saw its way of doing things shaken by the work of minor players. The Arab Spring, which triggered regime change and civil war across the Middle East, is said to have begun when a single man set himself on fire in Tunisia.
The man – Mohamed Bouazizi – was a fruit seller. In India, he would be called an Aam Aadmi – which can be translated to Mango Man, Common Man, or in the case of Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s latest documentary, ‘An Insignificant Man’.
Bouazizi self-immolated out of frustration with a corrupt system that had bribed him to the point of despair. To the bureaucracy, he was insignificant – but his actions proved he was anything but. Violent revolutions that shook the whole of the Middle East spawned from his sacrifice. But thousands of kilometres away, in India, it also helped spark a non-violent revolution – and the renewed significance of another insignificant man.
‘An Insignificant Man’ tracks one of the most fascinating and polarizing stories in Indian politics – that of Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Riding on the heels of the India Against Corruption movement, AAP managed a stunning political upset when they finished second in Delhi’s 2014 state elections – and formed a government with the outgoing incumbent party, the Indian National Congress (INC).
Since then, AAP has contested national elections with little success. In 2014, the AAP government resigned after failing to pass anti-corruption legislation through the state legislature. The next year, they ran for elections again – and won 67 out of 70 seats in Delhi. Kejriwal is now the Chief Minister of Delhi and has been for over two years.
“An Insignificant Man” was anticipated as much for its content as for its unlikeliness. It is a one-and-a-half hour self-described ‘political thriller’ – made from over 400 hours of footage of the AAP in its most formative moments. Close-quarters political access to the camera is a rarity in India. The truth about politics remains behind closed rooms, trapped in the moments between press conferences and the charade of public appearance. Filmmakers, Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, shadowed Kejriwal & Co. for a year and a half to make this a reality.
In the hyper-polarized arena of contemporary Indian politics, dominated by Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), any work of media about AAP risks the accusation of bias. Where this film excels is its consistent neutrality – which it achieves by observing a movement; the contrasts between the old and the new, between the AAP and the establishment (incumbent and rival political parties). Six years since Kejriwal’s name first flashed on television screens across the country, this fly-on-the-wall documentary gives viewers an insider’s view of the birth of a political party.
But why watch a film about the rise of one political party restricted to a region? Why not watch one about the Congress or the BJP – who remain national-level powers? It’s a question that boils down to a fundamental premise of democracy – the common man’s access to political power. To understand how this access is strangled by incumbent power, you will need to watch this film. AAP’s volunteers are beset by everyone from the police to political goons to the media themselves. The travails faced by AAP will be faced by anyone who tries to challenge an establishment that has money, human resources and even the law on its side.
Perhaps the best shot in the film is of two rival politicians from the Congress and the BJP, cracking jokes and laughing with each other only moments after engaging in a high-stakes shouting match for a news segment. It shows you the great smokescreen of politics; what happens after the press cameras are turned off.
Other great sequences stem from juxtapositions; watching the BJP, Congress and AAP handle the same political events is an exercise in comic storytelling. Perhaps no camera has thus far captured so visually, the difference between new blood and old power.
This camera also captured arguments within AAP, shot over the shoulders of volunteers who Kejriwal resolutely talks down when they demanded the right to pick AAP’s political candidates. This camera, unflinchingly, shows the rise of a one-man party in AAP – the most common criticism of the party. And it does so by allocating an equal amount of screentime to a man who is no longer on any AAP posters – Yogendra Yadav.
Plainly dressed, outnumbered, and outgunned by India’s political establishment, Arvind Kejriwal is the energy to the movement. He is the visual figure the masses can get behind. But Yogendra Yadav, a foresighted psephologist, is the brains. He is the calm voice that prods the essence of the movement – the decentralisation of political power – forward.
The energy and creative tension between the two give the audience the real thrill – by virtue of the benefit of hindsight. For in April of 2015, AAP expelled Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, two of its founding members, after what was widely perceived as differences with Kejriwal. Yadav has since formed his own outfit – the Swaraj Abhiyan party.
The best example of the divergence between the two is their reaction to the film – Yadav enthusiastically tweeted his approval and urged viewers to watch it. Kejriwal, normally known to be an enthusiastic film reviewer, has maintained an uncanny silence on the film that has him on the poster.
Where House of Cards required fiction to depict the realities of politics, ‘An Insignificant Man’ manages to be a thriller whilst staying true to its documentary roots. The film was nearly barred from screening in India after the Censor Board refused it a No-Objection Certificate on the grounds that the filmmakers needed consent from the Congress, BJP and AAP.
When the film was denied a No-Objection Certificate from India’s Censor Board, they fought the case on the grounds that such a certificate would render it meaningless. That a film on AAP, the BJP and the Congress would require the assent of these three parties in order to be screened shows the sorry state of political coverage. But the filmmakers won their battles and screened it without the resultant compromise.
An Insignificant Man ends at the moment when Kejriwal first receives political power – in the form of the Chief Minister’s seat, after striking an unlikely alliance with the people he had campaigned against, the INC. It was the moment he absolved ideals for politics, and in a sense, was the moment of his final transformation – from bureaucrat to activist, to a politician to a ruler. It feels almost wrong, in hindsight, to end at this point – for both AAP and Kejriwal’s real proving grounds were yet to appear. But the filmmakers felt some judgements were best left to the viewer.
Most viewers will be familiar with the events covered by this film. What they will not be familiar with is the fly-on-the-wall perspective of Indian politics. The sight of Kejriwal fidgeting with his shirt in the moments before a speech, laughing with his crew while trying to concoct a political video message for the first time, and poignantly, lying on his bed in the midst of a dharna – finding a pause in protest that he could never receive in politics.
Around the same time as the Arab Spring, India faced a looming revolution on its streets. But as the India Against Corruption (IAC) leader, Anna Hazare, learned, the democratic protest only gets you so far in the world’s largest democracy. Eventually, change-makers have to turn into politicians. And politicians, eventually, turn into rulers.
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