India’s political shifts as represented in AN INSIGNIFICANT MAN: An interview with the filmmakers

Note: this is a premium article that is available for one week before it comes members-only! Don’t want to miss out? Become a member of Cinema Scandinavia by clicking here. 

Beginning in 2012, social uprisings spread around the world. They threatened to engulf the older, regressive political powers in several countries at once, and Indian began to simmer under its own spark of protest. Decades of corruption had been occurring in the country, and through that, an ordinary man was able to push through and create social and political change. An Insignificant Man is a documentary that was given unprecedented access to this man’s rise to political power. The documentary was funded through Kickstarter, raising 600% of its goal and becoming the largest of its kind in India at the time.

Arvind Kejreiwal arrived on the political horizon and dramatically upset the status quo. As New Dehli was becoming a focal point of the public’s anger against India’s current political system, he sought to bring down old power structures through unconventional strategic thinking. He took to the streets with documents indicating the big players in government and stripped down the complexities of balance sheets to let the working-class peak into the injustices concealed within.

An Insignificant Man is a political study of the most turbulent phenomenon in India’s political landscape in decades – an event that is continuing to evolve. The documentary witnesses the birth of Arvind Kejreiwal’s party, the Common Man’s Party, and then continues the journey into the party’s inner workings, strategies, tactics and teething issues. What the film covers is how Arvind can build influence on a grand scale, reaching out and finding the needs of individuals across Dehli and India, resisting the need to compromise. Arvind is a charming character, and the two directors use this to affect the narrative. An Insignificant Man reveals the personalities behind the ideologies that sparked a revolution in Indian politics.

We spoke to the two directors, Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, as well as their Norwegian composer, Ola Fløttum, about the making of this powerful documentary.

Can you please explain to us why you wanted to make a documentary about Arvind Kejriwal?

Vinay: Both of us have been politically curious our entire lives, but we didn’t have any first-hand knowledge or experience of politics until this film. We had seen Kejriwal on TV leading the historic Indian Anti-Corruption protests of 2011, and then, in 2012, Kejriwal announced that he was going to take his fight forward by forming his own political party and fighting elections. He was starting with a clean slate and his story presented, to us, an opportunity to engage with politics afresh. His political party was like a start-up – full of wild ambition, promises and contradictions. The news on TV wasn’t really covering their story properly so we just decided to dive into the story ourselves.

What was the process in making this documentary like? How much time did you spend Arvind Kejriwal?

Khushboo: When we started, we didn’t know if we had a documentary because nobody knew what lay ahead. We were almost naive in the beginning; just following Arvind and the party every day with our cameras and shooting everything we saw. Our research happened while we were shooting. In his public speeches, Arvind was using a lot of data to communicate deeper ideas of economic injustice which I found interesting. He was talking about clean political funding, decentralisation of power, transparency – all ideas which I hold dear. So, while there were a lot of other characters in the story, we realised quickly that Arvind was going to be a central figure. The party grew extremely popular over the year and we found ourselves hanging on to this group of people by the edge of our fingers. The party was involved in controversies, volunteers were being beaten up, there was infighting amongst the party members, etc.

How open were the individuals to being filmed?

Khushboo: Initially, when we started filming them, nobody else was interested in their story. So, they were more than happy that we were following them every day and that too with our cameras. As time went by, they got increasingly busy in the campaign and became less aware of our presence in the room. Over the year, we shot more than 400 hours of footage.

Why did you want to do a ‘fly on the wall’ approach?

Vinay: We come from a fiction film background. We like it when two scenes in a film speak to each other in the audiences’ mind without a narrator telling the audience to so. We decided to not use any voiceovers in the film and allow the audiences to stitch the film together. When you see the film, you notice that the camera is up close with the characters in all kinds of situations. It’s a very intimate film in that sense. A narrator or voice over would have taken away from that intimacy.

Do you feel this type of political uprising is like ones happening in other parts of the world?

Khushboo: Of course! There have been all kinds of a political uprising – from the far left to the far right. You are increasingly seeing ordinary people come forward and seek a more ‘result-oriented’ politics. Arvind Kejriwal being voted to power in the India is as much a reflection of the discontent amongst people as Donald Drumpf being voted into power in the US is or the Podemos party in Spain is.

Arvind has also been likened to politicians like Bernie Sanders. Would you agree with that?

Vinay: Well they are identical in the sense that both have come to personify ‘new politics’ in their own countries. They are both extremely polarising. But they are very different in the sense that Bernie has been a career politician with years of governance behind him while Arvind is just starting out.

It’s hard to decide if you wanted to paint a positive or negative view on this party…

Khushboo: We wanted to make a film not just about this political party but also about power. We were seeking a more nuanced perspective and I think that’s the key point. We didn’t want to paint Arvind or his party as heroes or villains because stories are more complex than that. Instead, we wanted to use cinema to provoke deeper reflection about the dynamic between intention and ambition, individual and organisation, idealism and politics. Hopefully, the film does not give easy answers to these choices.

Can you please explain to us the decision to seek crowdfunding and the success that followed from that?

Khushboo: There is absolutely zero institutional funding for political films in India. We pooled in our savings to start the film and were then helped by our Producer Anand. The project kept getting bigger but no institution would support us financially. So finally, as an act of desperation, we did a crowdfunding campaign. Crowdfunding wasn’t too popular so we built our own website, created a trailer and launched the campaign with a target of $20,000. The campaign was hugely successful with people responding from all over the world. We landed up raising $120,000! Our backers told us that they were interested in what the conventional media wasn’t telling them and they wanted a more nuanced perspective on the AAP story.

The film has screened at major international film festivals. What has the reception been like?

Vinay: We premiered the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. This is our first film and TIFF was really an amazing launch pad for the film. Since then, the film has had sold-out screenings at the BFI London Film Festival, IDFA, Busan International Film Festival and many others. It’s been very exciting to know that the film is finding audiences wherever it goes. We just played the film in Valencia last month and there was so much interest and conversations because people were drawing parallels between the Aam Aadmi Party & the Podemos. Audiences have seen the film, related it to their own surroundings and political figures and reinterpreted it.

You have worked with a Norwegian composer, Ola Fløttum. Why did you decide to work with him?

Khushboo: Our film doesn’t have any narrator or voice over. It has a lot of dense dialogue – people talking continuously and over each other. So, we were looking for a music composer who would take the chaos away from our film and really help bring people closer to the film with music. We were major fans of Ola’s work with Joachim Trier and we decided to send him our rough cut. He watched the film and got back to us immediately with a ‘yes’. We hadn’t even met or spoken money or discussed contracts. He said he loved the film and he was excited to start work right away.

What was the process of working with Ola like?

Vinay: We started with just a lot of talking – we would talk to him about each character and what they meant to us, talk about scenes and moods within the film, about what kind of music we wanted – and Ola would reply with what he felt about the film. These conversations began a phase wherein Ola searched for melodies and sent us very specific musical pieces. Those pieces helped us arrive at a musical direction for the film. From there on it was a journey wherein we quickly realised that Ola was hearing the film that we were seeing in our heads. His music really holds the film tight right now. He channels the voice of our characters and scenes through music, thereby allowing us as directors to say so much more in every scene with the help of music.

Do you still follow the party and the political scene in Delhi?

Vinay: Not really. Once we finished shooting, we felt it was important for us to just cut off and focus on the material we had shot. We wanted to make a cinematic experience from our material and not be affected necessarily by the daily political upheavals. It’s hard but we have tried to stay cut off.

Have members of the party seen the film? What do they think about it?

Khushboo: We had a screening for Arvind & Yogendra (separately) after the film had premiered at TIFF. The months leading up to the premiere were very hectic and so we only got the opportunity to share the film with them afterwards. They saw the film and were responsive to it while watching it. However, at the end, both had a subdued reaction to the film. They called it ‘interesting’ and didn’t say much. I guess it’s hard for them to see a film about themselves and comment on it objectively. So yeah.

What do you hope audiences take away from this documentary?

Khushboo: There is a strong need for alternative narratives right now. Our film offers an alternative view of this new political party, by taking a more meditative and nuances approach towards the subject. I hope that our film propels audiences to go out there and seek alternative narratives around issues that concern them. The mass media currently is dominating the way we live our lives and it would certainly help if we had more narratives coming forward.

Ola Fløttum

Can you please tell us about your filmmaking background and how you got into composing?

My background is making albums and playing in different bands, with my main band being The White Birch. I was lucky enough being discovered by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt through this band, and that was my way into the film industry.

What about this documentary was interesting to you?

It’s a really intriguing story portraying a few brave people taking on Goliath, and trying to change the world to a better place, and basically succeeding with doing it. The world really needs stories like this. It felt meaningful to be able to be a part of it.

What was your approach to creating music for this documentary?

I just wanted to be true to the story and not try to tweak anything into anything else than that. It’s all there in the film, I just had to highlight the right places with adding a suitable soundscape and the appropriate melodic kind of structure.

You have worked on several major Scandinavian films. How do you approach music for a documentary compared to music for a feature film?

I had to be true to the story. This is real people, experiencing real problems and huge obstacles in life. I needed to embrace that fact, and be careful with not distorting their journey.

What do you feel was important for the music to convey in this documentary?

To highlight the emotional chaos they went through. To give people a chance to really be there, and not just observe.

How long does it take to compose music for a documentary compared to a feature?

It depends. It’s finished when it’s finished; you never know. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes shorter. For me, it often depends on how well I connect with the film. This story was easy to connect with, still, it took quite some time, mainly because of the huge amount of music probably. But I turned down several other films to do this film. I felt it was something I had to do.


Want to learn more about An Insignificant Man?

 Visit the official website

Black Movie Film Festival

Nominated, Audience Award
Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla


Nominated, F:ACT Award
Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla

London Film Festival

Nominated, Grierson Award
Documentary Film
Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla


Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.