How Two First-Time Directors Made a Radical Documentary on Indian Politics

Sitting at home when you see
a news panel discussions, you have a very clean idea of politics.
Politics is served to you in very clean snippets.
But when you see it actually unfolding out in front of you,
it happens in a very mundane and chaotic way. It was more cinematic than anything
that we had seen in cinema. In 2013, Arvind Kejriwal a know
anti-corruption activist in New Delhi, decided to form a new political party and against all odds captured
the imagination of India. An Insignificant Man is a political thriller
shot by first-time directors, Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla who immersed themselves in
the heart of this political circus. The documentary focuses on behind-the-scenes
moments when the news cameras are turned off, giving us an intimate look into the drama
and intensity of Indian politics. This morning we meet the directors in
Mumbai to discuss their debut film. Hi guys. How are you doing? -Very, very well.
-Yeah? Yeah. So should we take
a little walk? Thank you for
joining me this morning. What has the response been? And has it been something that
you all were expecting, not expecting? Internationally, obviously the
response was very warm and you know, extremely surprising because
a lot of our anxiety was around whether people will understand
Indian politics or not. By the time we finished the final
cut and we showed it in Toronto everybody was sort of getting
what it was like, everybody understood that,
okay, there are these two huge political parties and then
there is this insurgent party that is sort of coming out of
the largest democracy in the world Even in the U.S., this trend
of outsider politics whether it’s Trump
or Bernie Sanders, it’s people who are outside
the system who are using that status as a way to break into this
sort of behemoth. Politics in India seem
so hard to access. Untouchable, yeah. And it seems like you have, you really have no idea what’s
going on behind the scenes. This is really like opening
a secret door -into some whole different space.
-Yeah. Having grown up in a country where
politics affects so much of our lives, in visible and invisible ways, it’s amazing that there are
very few films on realpolitik. Like, you go inside politics
and you try to investigate who are the people,
what are they talking about, what are they doing,
what are they, you know, strategizing? I think the film allows people to,
like you said, go behind the scenes of politics.
It’s heartening to hear that, that your film is managing
to strike a conversation that people are looking to have. And yet at the same time it’s scary,
that politics has also divided or polarized conversation so much
that people from different ideas are not willing to talk anymore. And somewhere we were hoping
to sort of capture that vacuum. I know you’re crowdfunded, ey? So, Khushboo actually
came up with the idea of doing a crowdfunding campaign,
which I completely opposed. I said there is no way
a political film like this, which is a documentary,
will ever raise a single penny. -In fact when we–
-Oh, you just didn’t think it would? I was like, there is nobody in this country
who’s going to give this money. They were looking to raise
$20,000 dollars and they ended up raising
a $120,000 dollars. And I pretty much eat my shoe, seeing that this clearly worked in a manner that I couldn’t
have ever imagined. Once those 782 people were on board, they really, I think
became our village. Like, they became our support group. It was genuinely the most miraculous and
magical thing that happened on the film. On that note,
should we go get some coffee? Yeah. It’s very early
in the morning still. How do you navigate those grounds
of keeping your personal politics at bay? You’re right that everybody brings
their own politics to the table Because the two of us were
co-directing the project, we had the privilege of exchanging
opinions and arguments on each scene. Wherein we decided at one point
that our only idea that we were going to focus on was
idealism versus politics, and scenes which
help us elaborate on that idea are the ones that we are
going to try and stick with. And so for us it was very important
to get our film almost proofread by as many trustworthy
sources as possible. And, ultimately the film that’s coming
out and the film that people are watching is resonating with them because
it’s a universal story. We were shooting with
very small DSLRs. To make sure that we
remain anonymous, to make sure that people
don’t observer us as much. So there are no rigs, me and Khushboo would just
pull focus on camera and try and stay out
of people’s way. But that meant that we had
to be close to every character. How many people were actually
handling cameras? Because I know you guys got a couple of students
as well, right? From Delhi? So initially there was the two of us,
then we got a friend from Bombay to join us. In Delhi, to find camera and sound
people is actually much more expensive. So we had no money. We went to colleges and got students,
trained them in camera and sound. And a lot of the amazing stuff
that is in the film right now has been shot by
first-time filmmakers. For us, one of the things that we were
also most proud was that the crew was actually more than
50 percent female, and which, on a political
documentary like this, which is, so like, you’re going into
spaces which are so, so dramatic. I think it was incredible
in a lot of ways. -These young women who went in–
-A space where normally you wouldn’t see a lot of
gender diversity at all. Yeah. And there were these young women
who were going in shooting and it was amazing in a way. Have you all faced any
major resistance to the film? We premiered the film at
Toronto International Film Festival and then we wanted to
sort of release this film in India, and we applied to the
Censor Board for certificate so that it can be shown
publicly, widely in India. The Censor Board told us that,
we’ll clear your film and you can go out and
show the film in India widely. All you need to do is get us
a permission letter from the Prime Minister of India, from the Ex-Chief Minister of Delhi,
Sheila Dikshit, from Arvind Kejriwal
who’s seen in the film, and bleep out the names of Congress and BJP, which are the
two leading parties in India. And once you do all of this,
we’ll let you release the film. And their ground was, even though you’re using
public footage of these leaders and in the case of Mr. Kejriwal, who is the protagonist
of the film of sorts, they said you’re
criticizing Mr. Kejriwal hence you must get
his permission as well. In a written letter and that’s
how we’ll let you release the film. And we said, you know,
this sounds bizarre. If you’re not going to
be able to use speeches -and publicly available–
-Which is anyways shown on news channels. Yeah, and public footage
of your leaders. If you’re not going to use
public footage of your leaders. How are you going to critique them
without their permission? Like, if tomorrow you tell me, I can’t use the speech
of the Prime Minister to analyze what he did after that
speech, it doesn’t make sense. If, for example, if Michael Moore
was to go and ask George Bush for his permission before releasing
Fahrenheit 9/11, that film would have
never come out. So, we decided to of course,
you know, fight back. And that took a long time. Because we knew if we–
you know, a lot of our friends told us that, just release the film
online and get done with this. But we decided to sort of
take the film to the tribunal and where there was an extensive,
legal, due diligence done. And the tribunal ruled in
our favor and said that what the Censor Board was asking
was completely unconstitutional and so much like after a six month
long campaign wherein the International
Documentary Association, stepped in, a couple of
European bodies stepped in. There was a lot of
international pressure. That’s how we managed
to get this film out. -So, yeah.
-So it’s been a long journey. Have members from the AAP watched
the film, has Arvind watched the film? The AAP, we screened
the film for them. We were very nervous before the
screening, because we were like, you know, how are these
people going to react? They saw the film and they had
a very distinct reaction to the film. How do you mean? He saw the film, Arvind saw the film
and he said, “Yeah, it’s interesting.” And, we were like,
what does that mean? Does he like it
or does he not like it? And then we were talking to
our friends, who are documentary filmmakers,
and they said, you know, you have to understand people find it
very difficult to watch a film about themselves and agree or disagree with it right away. Unfortunately, we don’t have that
kind of access to him wherein we, we can ask him again, what do you
think about it because once we stopped shooting
in early 2014 we completely broke contact with him
or with the political party because we wanted to sort of, you know, be–
-Independent while you go into post. And since then a lot has
happened in their lives. And, so it was very– also while we
were filming they didn’t really think that we were
serious filmmakers. They thought that they had let
a couple of college students in who were doing this project on their
DSLRs, which was going on forever. That we came back with a full-blown,
one-and-a-half hour of cinematic film was already quite a
revelation to them. It’s just been a real privilege to be
able to chat with you guys about this because this is really, really
an incredibly exciting film. Thank you so much. And, I, really hope as many people
as possible can watch it. Thank you so much. Thank you very much.

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