The significance of An Insignificant Man: Why India needs more political documentaries

Madhavan Narayanan

Nov,15 2017 08:58 55 IST

I would like it very much if Arvind Kejriwal,  Kumar Vishwas,  Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav sat together to watch An Insignificant Man.

If it does not cause a flutter in their hearts, a lump in their throats or a searing pain in their inner being, there is something wrong with them – or maybe, India. The documentary film made by young Vinay Shukla and Khushboo Ranka is getting a theatrical release in India this week after laudatory reviews last year in the international circuit. Chances are that you find it more interesting than a Bollywood thriller.

A still from An Insignificant Man. YouTube

A still from An Insignificant Man. YouTube

And thereby hangs the significance of An Insignificant Man — and for that matter, well-made political documentaries.

Somewhere in the hurly-burly of noisy prime-time TV shows loaded with accusations, innuendo, sound bites, anchor-baazi and of course, Breaking News, we miss the wood for the trees. Here is where a sensible documentary stands out, just as well-written feature stories stood out from every day news in the good old age of the newspaper.

Picture yourself in 2013. It was just four years ago, and it seems to me like a very long time in Indian politics. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came out of nowhere asking for a Jan Lok Pal Bill to fix corruption, got pushed into mainstream politics, got itself a dream debut in the Delhi assembly without getting real power, and won an overwhelming second mandate that put it in power, only to face everyday running battles with the Union government or its favourite Lieutenant Governor. While that happened, there was an implosion within AAP that saw bigwigs Bhushan and Yadav move out. This week, Kumar Vishwas and Kejriwal's A-listers are fighting a cold war.

The documentary, which gives us a contrasting backstory to the current gridlock, scores on three big counts: it gets us candid, intimate shots  on what went behind the scenes in the early days of AAP as it entered politics from the creaky innards of India Against Corruption; it offers insights into Kejriwal’s strange mix of participatory decision-making with a strong personality cult; and it brings into focus the ironies of close friends falling out after passionate months spent on a shared mission.

Amid all this, the live shots and the funeral of party worker Santosh Koli, AAP’s first big martyr, forms a poignant backdrop. This is all too human in the middle of political heat in a manner that no news bulletin can easily capture.

While An Insignificant Man officially ends with Kejriwal assuming power, it thoughfully mentions in the end the fallouts that followed in AAP. I was reminded of Andrzej Wajda’s biopic on Danton on the fissures during the French Revolution.

There is no anchor-like narrator. Just a tapestry of intensely visual scenes that bring to us the sights, sounds and nearly the smells of 2013 which when viewed in hindsight offer a perspective that goes beyond the sum total of its shots.

Political documentaries are not new to India but they often wear ideological agenda on their sleeves. (Let us not even go into downright propagandist documentaries).  Despite ideological presuppositions, some documentaries such as ones by Anand Patwardhan stand out in capturing the moods of the times. His Prisoners of Conscience was on those who went to jail during the Emergency. Hamara Sheher covered the politics of demolition in Mumbai and Jai Bhim Comrade entailed the cause of Dalits.

More recently, The Unbearable Being of Lightness by Ramachandra PN covered the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad, and thus, Dalit issues.

The 1980s saw Mediastorm, a group of young mass media graduate women from Delhi, making shockingly revealing documentaries on the social realities of India such as the return of sati  in Rajasthan and the plight of Muslim women. After the 2002 riots in Gujarat, Rakesh Sharma made the controversial The Final Solution that brought out  India’s violent underbelly.

Later,  Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her essayed a contrast between Miss India aspirants and Hindu nationalist women. Many of them are moving chronicles with political significance, while some such as Maati Ke Lal by Sanjay Kak, have dug into issues such as Maoism.

Of course, we have had a second genre of usually foreigner-made documentaries that delve into deeper social realities of India, often through alien eyes that focus on the pathos or the exotic nature of the country to Westerners. (You may call this Mahakumbh chic, if you will). Some documentaries have been banned, including Satyajit Ray’s work on Sikkim.

An Insignificant Man scores in such a backdrop because it stops short of wearing its sympathies on its sleeves. While others, including the phoren-made India chroniclers, are educative, they do not get behind closed doors of a political group and that too at the top echelons like this one does. The fact that it is having a theatrical release is something to celebrate.

The US saw Farenheit 9/11 rise to new highs in movie halls as it raised questions in the aftermath of George W Bush’s war on terror and its socio-economic backdrop.  That was hopefully a global inflexion point for political documentaries courting large screens.  Hopefully An Insignificant Man will do that for India.

Produced by Anand Gandhi, who made the critically acclaimed feature, The Ship of Theseus,   this work will hopefully inspire more such “cinema verite” style of documentaries. Digital cameras are getting cheaper and cheaper, and editing software is available free online. Crowdfunding is hip. Young film-makers are out of excuses if they cannot chronicle our own times better in the audio-visual medium.

(The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity)