Wednesday, November 15, 2017

An Insignificant Man

I had anticipated An Insignificant Man for a long time, being also a crowdfunder to the film with a very tiny contribution. The film, originally and better titled as "Proposition for a Revolution", has, however, disappointed me, notable for its focus on one man (Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, founder Arvind Kejriwal) rather than the film's stated aim of focusing on the evolution of a new political party.

The biggest letdown of the documentary film is its linear narrative, which ends with the unexpected good performance (for some) of the AAP in its very first legislative elections. Unexpected for the uninitiated, but the Indian knows the story, and the film thus ends up giving some thrilling political narrative with some grit around it, but is absent of substance, is absent of thought. It focuses too much on Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav, essentially doing the same what Kejriwal himself has been repeatedly accused of: personality cult. Electoral battles, however, are not won by mere charisma, especially when it's on a wide scale and for the first time, and when you face more charismatic leaders in the opposition (BJP's Modi): they are rather won through grassroots successes, which the film gives a mere glimpse of. The film could have focused on a few aam candidates, a few constituencies within Delhi: for it is the workings of politics that need to be shed light upon and that would provoke thought, not the tired old story (especially by now) of the outsider storming to power. The film, though it claims to be impartial, also does worship Kejriwal: it does not focus on opponents, except when it is a weak opponent in her weak moments, as Sheila Dikshit during her moments of arrogance. What of Modi or even the very weak Harsh Vardhan? To show victory, you have to show what got defeated (and, then, BJP stood first in those elections). The film's linear narrative, which though misses out on the Anna Hazare context except a visual in the beginning, only makes the film be like one of those Hollywood sports movies, at the end of which the underdog does win, against all odds. All political thought, except when preached by Yadav, serving as punctuations in the film, is absent. For that to happen, the film should have engaged with party volunteers as well as voters and opposition candidates, rather than revolving around Kejriwal. And with less Yadav preaching. The film is not supposed to be a Kejriwal biopic, one must remember.

Meanwhile, the film does simplify matters to those audiences who know nothing about Kejriwal, notably foreign audiences: hence, it is a film that can run well on the festival circuit. The sheer complexity of India, and its electoral exercise, is a mind-boggling one, which is captured in detail in the film, and that can impress or stun (or confuse) a Western viewer, some of whom are too often used to think of themselves as the only democracies. The film's subtitling in English, though, is terrible, at least for now: colourful or idiomatic Hindi is replaced with staid English phrases. The title of the film itself, which is the unique title of the film including in India, does it great disservice; it in fact gives impression of a reality that does not exist, something ironic for a documentary: aam aadmi does not mean "an insignificant man", but "a common man". In the film as well, Kejriwal's proclamation that he is but an aam aadmi is again subtitled as "insignificant man", so that is very clearly a conscious choice. Yes, the mango man does carry nuances of insignificance, but that is already packed in the English word "common". If Kejriwal had meant to call his party that of "insignificant" men, Hindi does not lack words: to translate "common" as "insignificant" elevates the thrill of the (now insignificant) outsider, the David, versus the established, the Goliath; it also heightens bitterness, and at the same time gives a distorted picture of Indian polity and society.

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