Christ of Dehli
The layered complexity of Ranka and Shukla’s documentary Insignificant Man (2016) begins with its title. After all, Arvind Kejriwal — the steel-eyed, soft-hearted protagonist who takes center stage — is anything but insignificant: his launching of the Aam Aadmi Party, a coalition for the common man, revolutionizes Indian democracy by giving a voice to the voiceless. But it is precisely the politician’s commonness — his “insignificance,” as he states later — that allows him to have such far-reaching influence on the masses. The man is at once a civilian and a hero; a denouncer of power and a humble recipient of it. It’s a paradox that filmmakers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla explore deftly in their first ever documentary.
It is fitting, then, that our introduction to the soon-famous politician comes from the backseat of an old, lurching car. Kejriwal, with his back to the camera, speaks calmly into a cell phone as he advocates for a brutally-attacked land officer, concluding that “the politicians are like the mafia here.” In under a minute, Ranka and Shukla’s establish the core tenets of their protagonist: his belief in the corruption of the establishment, a strong sense of duty to protect the common people, and — perhaps most interesting of all — a sort of personal anonymity. In fact, we don’t see his face until the following scene — and even then, he blends in with the other tunic-clad men in the room. Only the appearance of small white letters spelling his name indicates the politician’s relative importance in the film.
In many ways, Kejriwal’s unassuming presence onscreen mirrors his unassuming presence in the political world. The former income tax commissioner enters public service with a unique appreciation for personal relations and on-the-ground work, forgoing fancy delegation of tasks for a simple do-it-yourself approach. And for someone who champions the rights of the “common man,” what could be more fitting? Ranka and Shukla’s frequent use of hand-held shots adds to this no-frill approach: in one scene, the filmmakers follow Kejriwal as he pushes through a crowded train car in order to hand out flyers; in another, the camera tracks an informal campaign meeting during which Kejriwal dissolves into a fit of giggles. In both scenes, sloppy pans and improvised cinematography allow for a more intimate vantage of the politician.
But amidst Kejriwal’s “commonness” — his modest attire, minimal task delegation, and frequent interactions with community members — he remains a respected and almost god-like leader among the masses. As the Delhi Legislative Assembly election looms nearer, wide angles and aerial shots emphasize Kejriwal’s growing popularity, as well as the burden of belief with which he identifies. Meanwhile, high angle shots during the politician’s rallying speeches make viewers feel like they, too, are standing somewhere in the crowd, gazing expectantly at a man with many promises.
Ultimately, it is a combination of Kejriwal’s commonness and heroism that makes him, arguably, a Christ figure. Nowhere is this more evident than when the politician decides to fast for fifteen days, using public martyrdom to showcase his personal investment in the campaign. The frail-looking man says he will “submit to [the] rods and chains” of his opponents — a statement that elicits unconditional loyalty from many followers: “we will die for you.” Ultimately, Kejriwal’s unfaltering fight for justice — coupled with ample displays of kindness and a miraculous victory over the leading political party in Delhi — attests to his unique, larger-than-life presence in this thriller-like documentary.