'An Insignificant Man': Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Elusive but engaging.

Facing censorship battles at home, this much-travelled documentary chronicles the rise of the "Indian Bernie Sanders" and his maverick political movement.

A populist outsider with a drain-the-swamp agenda mounts a bold challenge to entrenched political elites in An Insignificant Man, making some powerful enemies in the process. The maverick Indian politician Arvind Kejriwal may have cosmetic parallels with Donald Trump, but his principles are much more at the Bernie Sanders end of the spectrum. Indeed, the debutant directing duo behind this imperfect but sporadically gripping documentary portrait, Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, are keen to portray Kejriwal as an Indian version of Sanders.

A solid festival presence in recent months, An Insignificant Man is currently generating headlines at home after India’s domestic certification board ruled that the filmmakers must secure full legal clearance from their main subjects ahead of theatrical release. Ranka and Shukla are fighting this draconian judgment, which smells uncomfortably like state censorship. Ironically, the growing scandal is likely to boost interest in this modest indie documentary way beyond its natural core audience of politically engaged Indians and émigrés with Indian connections. It screens this week at Brooklyn Film Festival before further June stopovers in Sheffield, Sydney, Moscow, Washington and more.

Supported by the Sundance Institute and partly financed with individual crowdfunding donations, An Insignificant Man is essentially a fly-on-the-wall cinematic diary documenting the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party), which Kejriwal launched in 2012 on a strong anti-corruption platform, with specific focus on forcing down inflated utility bills for Delhi’s poorest citizens. Ranka and Shukla capture the AAP’s troubled birth pangs as the soft-spoken Kejriwal initially plays the humble outsider card before slowly revealing a more combative, arrogant, authoritarian side.

Calling for an Arab Spring-style uprising against a crooked political establishment, Kejriwal assembles an excitable team of activists and advisors, including the fiery Santosh Koli and the debonair Yogendra Yadav, both of whom would light up the screen in a Bollywood epic. Indeed, the AAP leader’s David-vs.-Goliath story has already inspired a fictionalized movie melodrama, Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha (2013).

But An Insignificant Man increasingly takes on the tenor of a political thriller when Kejriwal stands against Delhi’s incumbent Chief Minister, the haughtily Hillary Clinton-esque Sheila Dikshit, in the city’s Legislative Assembly elections. AAP activists are threatened, beaten and arrested. One is framed in a ham-fisted TV sting operation. Another dies in the hospital after a road accident that looks suspiciously like a deliberate assassination plot. Frustratingly, the filmmakers never fully explain either incident.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Kejriwal scored a surprise victory in the Delhi elections, gifting the filmmakers a conveniently uplifting feel-good finale. But so many more dramatic events happened after the cameras stopped rolling — shock resignations, parliamentary shutdowns, internecine rifts and expulsions from the AAP — that An Insignificant Man inevitably feels like only half the story. It also fails to give us a fully rounded portrait of the elusive Kejriwal, offering scant insights into his political hinterland, his contentious leadership methods or his personal life.

Mostly shot in scrappy, hand-held reportage style, An Insignificant Man is journalistically fuzzy and unashamedly partial. But it also has the appealing zeal of an idealistic passion project, and has generated an impressive amount of newsworthy buzz for a first-time feature. Having delivered on many of his campaign promises, Kejriwal remains a charismatic new force on the Indian political landscape. For future historians, this film may serve as a valuable eyewitness record of that moment when sparks became wildfire.

Production company: Memesys Culture Lab
Cast: Arvind Kejriwal, Yogendra Yadav, Santosh Koli, Sheila Dikshit
Directors: Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla
Producers: Anand Gandhi, Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla
Cinematographers: Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla, Vinay Rohira
Editors: Abhinav Tyagi, Manan Bhatt
Music: Ola Fløttum
Sales contact: Memesys Culture Lab, Mumbai

100 minutes

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