This year's edition of the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), to be held from September 8-18, boasts of an impressive line-up. For those who follow Indian cinema as well as politics, there's one title in its documentary section — amidst new films by the likes of Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, Steve James, and Errol Morris — that is certain to pique their interest: first-time filmmakers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla's An Insignificant Man.
Nearly four years in the making, this 95-minute documentary focuses on the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and its founder Arvind Kejriwal, currently the Chief Minister of Delhi. Along with associate director/cinematographer Vinay Rohira, Ranka and Shukla shot nearly 400 hours of footage. Most of it captures the period between late 2012, when the party was founded, and December 2013, when AAP made its electoral debut with the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections and came into power for the first time.
The film has been produced by filmmaker Anand Gandhi, best known for directing the critically acclaimed, National-Award-winning Ship Of Theseus (2013) — which had also premiered at TIFF, four years ago. "This film is a fantastic document of what has been the singular biggest problem for democracy anywhere in the world: making it more participatory," he said, in a phone conversation with HuffPost India. "It is a very nuanced take on democracy itself, and what Khushboo and Vinay have done with the material has been a lesson to us all."
An Insignificant Man was earlier titled Proposition For A Revolution and sought crowdfunding to complete post-production, aside from having won a number of prestigious documentary grants. "When we'd first named the film, we were applying for funds and basically just put the first thing that came to our minds," says Ranka. "Over time, we've come to realise that it [the original title] was somewhat inelegant and clunky. A lot of our contributors and people we've pitched to abroad didn't really like it or would always get it wrong."
"Yeah, we'd get a lot of emails calling it 'Preposition Of A Revolution'," adds Shukla. Over the last couple of months, the duo came up with a number of alternative titles, and 'An Insignificant Man' got the most favourable response from the film's stakeholders (along with Udegi Dhool, which will be its Hindi title). "To me, the new title is also more open-ended and poetic," says Ranka.
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With extraordinary access, the duo have crafted what Gandhi calls a "democratic procedural", revealing the inner workings of a fledgling party in the style of an entertaining political thriller. "Basically, the reason we've spent two-and-a-half years editing this film is because we made a conscious cinematic choice in the beginning to make a film that's lively, reflecting the manner in which we discuss politics in India with, say, our fathers or our neighbours," says Shukla. "So, there's no voice-over and there was a conscious effort to ensure that it didn't get too academic or 'highbrow'. The idea is to make the kind of documentary that we ourselves would watch on, say, a Netflix."
"Yeah, I'd say we're more inspired by fiction films that are shot like documentaries rather than documentaries themselves," adds Ranka.
The film, which came into being after Ranka and Shukla went to Delhi on a whim to document the beginnings of AAP, has not been viewed or vetted by the party, say its makers. "Right in the beginning, we laid down two conditions, which were agreed upon by everyone," said Ranka. "One, that they [AAP] would give us a lot of access, including allowing high-level meetings to be filmed. Two, that we'd share our footage with them, but what we'd do with it would be at our discretion."
Now, with the world only months away from witnessing the birth of a party that often polarises public opinion — supporters see them as the only antidote to corruption and the closest we can get to true democracy in India; opponents view Kejriwal and his associates as a joke and/or dismiss them based on their lack of political experience — have members of the party expressed concern about how they've been depicted? "No, not at all," says Ranka. "I think they've just been too busy. Either that, or we're just too insignificant for them," she adds, with a laugh.
'An Insignificant Man' will have its world premiere under the TIFF Docs section of TIFF '16 next month. It will then tour the festival circuit before contemplating a wide release, which could either be theatrical or via OTT streaming services.
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