The Political Documentary That Was Banned by the Indian Government
Watch 'An Insignificant Man' and read our interview with the directors.
This article originally appeared on VICE US
“In India, you don’t grow up wanting to be a documentary filmmaker—you grow up wanting to be a filmmaker,” Vinay Shukla explains over a phone conversation with VICE. And An Insignificant Man, a documentary film by Shukla and Khushboo Ranka exploring the hushed topic of politics in India, is being released by VICE in the U.S. this week, and against all odds.
Politics tend to be a messy game, especially so in India. “Neither Khushboo or I came from a political background," Shukla claims. "We had no idea of how politics function before this. We both come from the kind of decent Indian family that tells you, 'Don’t go near politics—it’s not a good thing, it’s not for good people.’” But when the two started brainstorming for the film, the election was the most interesting thing happening. Ultimately, the election ushered in a new era for India and saw the end of its Congress’s 15-year hold on Indian politics, the BJP, and Narendra Modi. It also saw the birth of an entire new party: the AAP.
“When the AAP was starting out, they were basically a startup—they were trying to figure stuff out, there was this buoyant energy around them,” Shukla explains when discussing the filmmakers's gaining access to a government body that, otherwise, has proven elusive to the public eye. “They were campaigning for transparency, and a more interactive form of government.”
Luckily, Shukla and Ranka gained access to the AAP when it was just being formed, allowing them to follow its party leader and current Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, from conversing about policy to emerging as a force that would fight for democracy in India. Shukla and Ranka’s unique perspective and learning-as-they-go vibe created not only the country’s first documentary on the subject, but an uninhibited, honest look at what goes on behind the haze.
We caught up with the filmmakers to talk about gaining access, India's perspective towards documentary films, and their impossible fight against the country's censor board to release the film.
VICE: How did you guys come to work together?
Khushboo Ranka: Vinay and I were friends, and we worked together on Ship of Theseus. We were really inspired by watching that film shape up, and were able to travel with the film to places like Iran and Egypt. We met a lot of filmmakers and artists—it was an inspiring time for us. When we got back, we knew we wanted to make a film. We just wanted to pick up our cameras and start shooting.
A film like this is unheard of in India. How receptive were people to its filming?
India’s politics are extraordinarily opaque. The access is nearly impossible, and even this observational form isn't something that people have experimented with a lot. When we started making this film, people were astounded by the kind of access we were getting: “We’ve never seen anything like it.” The novelty of the film exists in various ways—from the content, to the form, to the fact that people were able to watch politicians they see everyday in the context of a larger story. People really responded to that.
How did you guys get that kind of access?
Vinay Shukla: When the AAP were starting out, they were new players in this political scene, making very tall claims and saying they were going to wipe out corruption. Ultimately, I think they thought someone probably should shoot that story. To be honest, at that point not too many people were taking them seriously—especially in the media. People were like, “Activists becoming politicians—when has that ever been successful?”
When we started shooting this film, we were amazed at everything we saw—how politics plays out on the ground. When you go out on the ground and see the extraordinary mess that politics functions in, it’s strange to find yourself in the mix. We wanted to try and transport that experience onto the audience. That’s why we tried to stick to the observational form—where there’s no one telling you what you should be thinking, but you feel like you’re in the room.
The film was initially banned, and when the ban was lifted, it had a limited theatre release. Can you talk about how documentary films are released and treated in India?
Ranka: The film was effectively banned because we were asked a few impossible things. We were asked to get permission from the Prime Minister, which is literally like saying you need to get Trump’s permission to show the film in America. So we fought against it at the level of the Judicial. After that, we did a limited release. In the first week, we released the film in about 25 theatres, and in the second week, we expanded to 64 theatres. It performed beyond expectations in the first week.
Shukla: To be honest, it’s been very hard for us to convince people that there’s an audience for a film like this. When we said that we wanted to make a film about the political process in India, people said the establishment would come after us for trying to make a political statement—especially one involving a new party. So perhaps we were naïve to make the film anyways, and when we did run into the censorship trouble, it reminded us of a lot of people telling us to be careful.
You have to remember, when we started making the film, we were both 26—just two kids who knew how to use a DSLR camera. We had no experience and no idea how documentaries were made. It’s been an impossible film in a lot of ways, but what happened is word spread that this is a film that takes you behind the scenes about Indian politics, which no film has done before—and people said it's a really entertaining film. As documentary filmmakers, we take that as a great compliment—that, ultimately, people are walking away having been really entertained.