The Significance of An Insignificant Man

A poster of 'An Insignificant Man'
A poster of 'An Insignificant Man'DNA India

Several years ago, a common man made a tryst with democracy and proposed a revolution— the recently released documentary, An Insignificant Man, tells us the story of how an outsider like Arvind Kejriwal gave rise to the Aam Aadmi Party in India. With over 400 hours of footage and two years of edits, Vinay Shukla and Khushboo Ranka present us with a time-capsule of history in the form of a 90-minute non-fiction political thriller. The film since its release in India has been making waves across the board—take one look at their Facebook page and you’ll see a slew of celebrity endorsements and raving reviews from prominent publications. Most people who have heard of it ‘really want to go see it’, yet, as I sat in a scantily packed cinema hall in Juhu for an afternoon screening of An Insignificant Man, I noticed the number of audience members who like myself had come alone—perhaps for reasons similar to mine. Despite how well it’s been spoken of, it was still hard finding company to go see a political-historical documentary on the weekend. “Can’t we go see Thor instead?” was the general reaction I was met with. While non-fiction films have picked up the pace on a global platform, the documentary industry in India is still latent. That’s not to say there isn’t quality content—with work by Anand Patwardhan, Saba Dewan, and now young filmmakers like Ranka and Shukla, substance is readily available to feed a politically active youth. Clearly, it is the audiences that haven’t caught up to that role yet. Documentaries like An Insignificant Man are still stuck as ‘niche’ when they should rather be required viewing for the masses, especially because such films have the potential to engage an apolitical and apathetic youth. Well put by Manu Joseph, “If you are the type who can read and write, and an Indian who has a stake in living here, don’t miss ‘An Insignificant Man’ (@aimthemovie). It is a stirring film that shows how powerful journalism can be when it becomes art”.

In a society where we are so ready to place idolatry beliefs on whoever is in power, these kinds of narratives will catalyze a shift in perspective from people-focused politics to idea-based debate. As the title so dictates, this is not a film about a man nor a politician. This story claims no value to Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi, nor Rahul Gandhi: these are all insignificant men. “Our view [is] that politics tends to be people-centred, while it should be idea-centred,” says Shukla in a recent interview with The Week. “You should be able to look at a politician and know what they stand for and what are they saying. It should not be a performance, it should be substance.” With a purely visual narration in the absence of interviews or voice-overs, An Insignificant Man shows us the people running our country and strips them of their ability to perform. It breaks down monsters and men alike and gives them the benefit of simply being human. It’s objectivity without the expense of apathy, and sensational without the cost of accuracy. It opens up a political dialogue where participants are forced to dedicate the kind of attention to detail and independent analysis that should be prescribed to all pieces of nonfiction media.

In a country where everyday politics are almost innately polar, it’s almost evolutionary that we adapt to objectivity. If you take a look at contemporary media in this country, short of being opinion-less, there is little room to be on the fence. While the sensationalized news will be difficult to wean off of, cinema verite may be the platform young Indians can use to foster an environment for ideological discussion. “The idea is to make it something like a Rorschach test”, Khusboo Ranka explains, “you show somebody an image and different people have different views about it.” The brilliance of An Insignificant Man is that if you like Arvind Kejriwal, you will leave liking him, and if you don’t, the film will do little to sway you otherwise. It doesn’t challenge your opinions, but rather will engage you to approach political idealism with a sense of neutrality.

There are many reasons why this documentary should be required viewing for a younger audience—the next generation of voters. In a key scene of the film, a BJP candidate stands in front of an audience of students in a university hall and says “Revolutionaries make great lovers, but lousy husbands”. It reminded me of a similar quote by Churchill shared with me often by uncles at dinner parties, “If you’re not a liberal at 20 you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at 40 you have no brain.” The AAP movement was fueled primarily by the youth of India and caused everyone to realize the power we hold. The directors of An Insignificant Man, perhaps in being young themselves, were able to lock down on this feeling and capture the inklings of fervour that surface with the promise of change. “The Grand March” as Kundera so calls it—the collective passion of fighting for justice—is what drove this movement. However, the film heartbreakingly concludes with a sentiment similar to Churchill’s and all those dinner party uncles’. Kejriwal, in the name of activism, was forced into the dirty games of politics—answering the age-old question: can you change the establishment without joining it first?

It’s a subject matter capable of stirring deeply personal sensations, which is why looking at it as an outsider gives the story a certain sense of clarity. The lack of eye contact with the lens is an aesthetic in itself, and this off-centred perspective makes for one of the most authentic pieces of political journalism that this country has seen in recent years. In this day and age, people are just as averse to cameras as they are drawn to them. The presence of a lens, or even just a phone, seems to elicit a performance from anyone in front of it (politicians in particular). However, there is something commendable about this fly-on-the-wall approach to storytelling—the subjects of the film don’t seem at all phased by the presence of the camera or crew. The fourth wall remains up the entire time. Of course, that kind of familiarity didn’t happen instantaneously—Shukla and Ranka said they filmed every day for three months before any usable content was documented. The fact that they did it at all has a lot to say about Kejriwal and more so about the filmmakers themselves. In their agenda-less, unassuming approach to this story, they have managed to capture the most unreserved imagery of the public sphere which many news media outlets have failed to do. In the absence of direct communication, we are actually given a more candid perspective into the politics and politicians of this country.

By blending a fiction-style narrative with documentation of true events, the story has a unique and layered message about performance and politics. It’s a piece of political media used to critique all political media. The documentary is self-reflective at every moment and mise-en-scene, and hence—for film nerds and novices alike—will far from disappoint. It is inherently entertaining, funny, and ultimately deeply insightful. It captures the romance of activism and the frustration of having it confronted with brute reality. It doesn’t claim to be a holistic portrayal of politics or the election, but it is a chronicle of history that will remain ageless and timeless in the grand scheme of political thought. It won’t teach you everything you need to know about Indian politics—in fact, it will teach you little of it. The events that transpired and the people who catalyzed them are essentially unimportant. An Insignificant Man is about understanding a revolution beyond its romantics and developing a new framework for political thought. It’s politics beyond the politicians; it’s politics for the people.