Conversations Around A Significant Film

A full-length documentary film on Arvind Kejriwal and AAP set in the backdrop of their first election triumph of December 2013 has been making waves recently. The film ran in theatres for a month and has been recently released online.

“An Insignificant Man”, directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla and produced by Anand Gandhi screened at the MAMI film festival in Mumbai (its Indian premiere, in 2016), to a warm reception. This is where filmmaker Jaideep Varma saw it and liked it enough to post about it the same night. He saw it again in the same festival and decided to interview the director duo and find out more about what that he thinks is “one of the most significant documentary films” he has seen. This was his first proper meeting with them.

Jaideep Varma is a writer/ director whose first documentary in 2010 “Leaving Home – the Life & Music of Indian Ocean” became the first documentary ever in India to release on the big screen nationally. The film also went on to win the National Award. He has made three other documentaries after that.

They met at the office of Memesys Culture Lab in Mumbai.

Jaideep Varma

We had our first conversation the day after Donald Trump got elected, which seems pretty apt now. Because whatever anyone may think of AAP or Arvind Kejriwal, it is just a bald fact that this is the only force anywhere in the world today prominently in the public domain, with some power to go with it, and with distinct future prospects – that is looking beyond wealth creation and divisive politics as a means of changing the world. For all the imperfections and faults (which you would have seen a lot of while making the film, and a lot that we are not seeing also), AAP still represents an idealistic oasis in a vast desert of political cynicism. Right-wing politics has emphatically become the new normal and this film combats that cynicism on so many levels. What do you think?

Vinay Shukla

For me, the AAP is certainly very special in India for the crystallization it has brought about of a certain consciousness amongst people. This is a consciousness that has been framed and shaped by popular cinema and unpopular journalism, which has pleaded people to come and wrestle with politics with both their hands. The AAP presented, and still presents, an opportunity for people to roll up their sleeves and take to the table. They arrived on the scene championing ideas like decentralization of power, transparency, clean funding, etc. We were attracted to these ideas more than the party or any individual. And somewhere, a dialogue around these ideas is very necessary in today’s times. That’s why you see the kind of passions around them. They have brought a lot of critical ideas into circulation…but as Khushboo likes to say, they are like a hypothesis that needs to be continuously proven.

JV

That’s well put.

Khushboo Ranka

In the context of Trump’s election, I also see it as an impulse of an electorate that is screaming out to be heard. And that impulse can, and is, manifesting in various ways. The emergence of the AAP, the election of Modi as PM, the Brexit campaign, Podemos…so, there are outsiders coming on both sides of the ideological spectrum of left and right. Just like Trump says I don’t even pay taxes because the system is rigged, Kejriwal also says things like that…there’s a very popular video of him from his RTI activism days, about 10-12 years ago, he is speaking to a group of people in a slum in Delhi and he says, who amongst you pays taxes? And people say, no, no, we don’t pay taxes. And he says, you are wrong. All of you pay taxes, you don’t even know you pay taxes. I think it is very interesting how economic disfranchisement of the rich and the poor is beginning to emerge in a very chaotic chorus of mandates.

JV

So, how did you guys get into this story? Where are you from?

KR

I am from Mumbai, born and brought up here. I come from a fairly conservative family, a business community; we don’t have anything to do with art or politics in the farthest reaches of our family tree.  I was in college (St Xaviers) when Anand Gandhi showed his short film there “Right Here Right Now” in 2004 or 2005. I loved the film and wrote to him to say that I wanted to work with him and that happened, and we’ve been friends since then. We co-wrote and co-directed a short film (“Continuum”), and then even with “Ship of Theseus”, I was one of the writers.

VS

I’ve been in Mumbai since the fourth standard. I was a terrible student throughout my life and I tried my hand at a lot of things, trying to get better. I came to filmmaking as a last resort, thinking that maybe something would come out of this. And, during then, a lot of my political consciousness was shaped by a magazine I read back then, which is quite unpopular today – that is Tehelka.

JV

It is tragic that a lot of their truly pathbreaking work is forgotten now.

VS

Unpopular journalism now, like I said. Tehelka also helped raise my curiosity levels and I began to read a lot of political stories and those stories tended to stay with me longer than others did. So, when I decided to become a filmmaker, my first short film was actually set during the Emergency in 1975.

JV

You mean…fiction?

VS

Of course I mean fiction; no one aspires to be a documentary filmmaker.

JV

True that. Had you seen “Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi”? Did that inspire you?

VS

Of course I saw it. It did and it did not. It did, because Hazaaron also had the kind of anecdotal quality to it, which I loved. In fact, you know that scene in Hazaaron where Shiney Ahuja’s wedding procession gets mixed up with the protest march? In our film, there is a scene of two marches crossing each other…which is the sort of thing that one takes small pleasures from.  It is a terrible short film, of course, and no, it is not on Youtube.

JV

You should put it up because anything dealing with subject matter like that is valuable.

VS

It won a few awards and went to a couple of festivals…

JV

Can’t be that bad then.

VS

So, anyway, I was looking to do something, and that is when I was working with Anand too, which is where Khushboo and I met and, in 2011, we actually did a short film project together…

KR

I wouldn’t go there.

VS

(laughs) So, we did a shorter project and then we came to this story.

KR

We were already experimenting with this form of observational shooting and then editing, and we were looking for a story that would fit this aesthetic. So, this is 2012, and we were traveling then, on a three-month long trip. We went to Egypt, just by chance, and the US and Canada. Everywhere, that popular consciousness was taking shape…

JV

The Arab Spring…

KR

Yes, and there were a lot of conversations that we had, and we saw a lot of filmmakers and artists engaging with their immediate realities. And we really wondered why we don’t see any of that in India.

JV

This is one thing that annoys me immensely actually, how we in India would rather tell the story that foreign funding (or even state funding) would have us engage with than the stories that have really captured the imagination of people here, and so end up producing exotica for ourselves too.

KR

A very small percentage of our art, and films engage with such stories, forget as a form of protest, but not even as a form of documentation.
So, anyway, coming back to 2012, if you remember, there was one corruption scam after another coming out in India and there was a lot of anger in people. But more than the protest side of things, we were interested in the story. In our travels we ended up meeting a lot engaged people, like in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the US too, which articulated our economic lives in a way that had not really been done before. Equations like 99% against the 1%, to comprehend that – that was compelling. In Canada, there were student protests happening. So everybody was narrativising their own movements and we felt that there were no narratives back home.

JV

So, do you think if you had not done those travels at that time, perhaps something may not have awakened in you that has actually led you to this?

KR

Yes, I would say that is quite possible. Just this thing of going to other places and seeing other people completely in your own image evokes something in you.

JV

So, after you came back, why did you gravitate towards documentary? As Vinay hinted, nobody ever says, I’m going to grow up to be a documentary filmmaker, so what happened?

VS

This, the AAP post-Anna Hazare, was the most interesting thing happening then. These people were far too real and interesting for us to think of fictionalizing them. So, we went to a couple of AAP rallies in Delhi and they gave us a sensory experience that we had never encountered before. There was so much noise, too many people and it was so different from what we see of political rallies on television.
So, for example, before Arvind speaks, there will be a local poet who will sing you a poem that he has just written about injustice and population. And then there will be a local trader association person who will come and tell you about everything that is happening that can be corrected. The stage itself is populated with all sorts of forces. You will see all kinds of characters, not just the netas. And you realize that is also so performative as it is about so many people coming up and owning the stage. So, it is so much like an open mic. And then, Arvind, or the main act, comes in and crystallizes everything that has happened before, and takes the narrative forward…these things were completely new experiences for us.
Just to be able to document this as storytellers was exciting for us. We had no idea what the film was going to be.

KR

See, the thing also is that we are essentially fiction filmmakers; that is the form that really seduces us. And actually the post shooting life of the film mimicked that of a fiction film. We decided not to have interviews or voice-overs to retain that essence of fictional storytelling. So, for filmmakers with no experience and no financial backing for a fictional project, this was a perfect opportunity. But we were not sure, and we did a few interviews to be safe, which were terrible because they would go on this spiel that they were well rehearsed in.

VS

Also, filmmaking as a process is fuelled by so much self-doubt so we did everything possible to understand the landscape better first by documenting as much as we could.

We were staying with friends as we weren’t sure about our finances, in a student slum at Mukherjee Nagar…

JV

Student slum? I know Rahul Ram (of Indian Ocean) lives there…

VS

And Rabbi Shergill too.
So, we were staying there and running behind the AAP people zipping around town and then coming back and watching footage with great joy with our friends. So, that process itself was exciting for us. We had no idea what the film was going to be, of course. We were just excitedly discovering stuff.

JV

Did a lot of this make it into the final film?

KR

Some stuff did. One of my regrets is that we weren’t able to put in a lot of the absurd stuff. The film is only 90mins after all.

JV

I hope you are doing a longer version of the film, like I did for Leaving Home, at least for online viewing. It is greatly liberating to know then that a lot of the stuff will not be wasted.

KR

Yes absolutely, and that would be a very different film.

VS

Much like Leaving Home perhaps?

JV

Actually, yes, I went through the same thing with Leaving Home and there was one unexpected thing I learnt during a screening of the film at Bangalore. The theatrical version is of course a celebratory and upbeat film, below two hours long, and there is a five-hour version, which I thought had basically just expanded the moments and added some parts in the same vein fundamentally.
There is a chapter in the longer version, which deals with Asheem’s death and how the band reacted to it. And we played just that chapter after the main film, and it completely changed the energy.
The mood had been exuberant at the end of the main film, ripe for a vibrant Q and A but this last bit left everybody stunned and it wasn’t just because it dealt with death, but the pace and energy of that film is so different. Despite exactly the same narrative, just because it is examining so much more, the vibe is totally different. And even as its director, that had not struck me. And no one really wanted to speak much in that Q and A after that.

KR

Yes, even in our feedback screenings, one small change would sometimes bring radically different reactions.

VS

We have also taken time to arrive at the form of the film the way it is now. Our earlier forms were different. You know, how we used music and the edit and just the sequencing of events. And we have seen people’s reaction change through that.

JV

Were you changing the narrative then?

KR

We were changing the focus. We would go away from the main characters and branch out with some other character, which is also interesting and important but beyond a point, it is hard to have many branching narratives. Somewhere along the line, we took a decision that we wanted to tell a political story and that the politics should foreshadow everything else. So, then our editorial choices became more defined.

JV

As far as the footage is concerned, I have to ask if they were self-conscious about it at any stage. For example, some parts don’t necessarily show Arvind in the most magnificent light, which is great for the film, but it is also great for him, because it humanizes him. For example, that moment when his authority is questioned and he is uncomfortable, as any founder of anything would be, that is human. So, I want to ask if you really were flies on the wall, or were they tolerating you in the room, and being self-conscious themselves?

VS

It was a process really.

JV

How did you approach them in the first place?

VS

We wrote to Arvind; he used to be quite active on his email then. Within two days he replied and said he had no problem and to come to his office and meet him. There, we also met Manish, who said they were all open to this, we can start shooting right away.

JV

Were there any conditions?

VS

I think the only condition, implicitly, was…decency. Besides that, they told us clearly that they had too much on their hands so we couldn’t expect any co-operation from them. Basically, we were on our own once they agree to letting us film them.

JV

Did you ever say that we’ll show you the stuff before you put it out or something?

VS

No. On the contrary, we told them in the first meeting that we’d have all creative control and we wouldn’t show them anything. We were about that.

JV

I can’t imagine a single political party that would agree to something like this.

KR

Not to take anything away from them, but they were not like a political party then, I mean, just in terms of optics. It is very different now, where people throng their offices.

JV

Did they ever get self-conscious, change their behaviour or ask you to leave the room?

VS

Whether they changed their behavior or not, we can’t really know. But they never asked us to leave the room. Even when things got a little hot, like when Arvind got angry with his volunteers, and all kinds of things were said, they never asked us to leave the room.

JV

Credit to them for that.

VS

Absolutely. They thought we were doing a home video kind of thing so they probably didn’t care after a point. And, that was kind of our approach too, actually, at the time. And we were also very anxious about whether we were getting the important stuff or not.

JV

Can’t be an easy time for you guys emotionally, as you have to be on your guard all the time.

KR

It was tough. And Delhi is a brutal city. It is a hard city all round the year and that takes its toll.

JV

Oh yes, a good part of Leaving Home was shot during the height of Delhi’s summer, and I remember some of us literally had salt formations on our body, given our exertions.

KR

It is brutal. Also, power is such a tangible thing in Delhi.

VS

Gradually, Khushboo also had the instinct to realize that we needed to expand the crew from just the two of us. Initially, we were shooting sound entirely on the camera mike.

JV

Did any of that make the final film?

VS

Oh yes, it did.

JV

And it’s fine?

VS

The first shot in the film where Arvind is talking to a volunteer is shot on the camera mike. We had to clean it of course, but it is fine. But all that happened much later after we found people to back us. No one said clean it up and then we will consider backing you.

JV

Did you have any films that had inspired you to make this? Not as something to emulate creatively but just as…

VS

Ambition. Yes, the last great film I saw. In the sense, whenever I saw something I loved, I would say what if we did something like this. Overall, I guess two of my favourite filmmakers are Joon-Ho Bong and Nuri Bilge Ceylan and everything in between that was an inspiration too.

KR

While we were making this film, “The Square” had just come out (an Oscar-nominated film on the Egyptian crisis till 2013, starting with the Tahrir Square revolution). We said to each other, look, even this film has come out.

JV

So, why did your film get so delayed? If your film is of an urgent nature, like this is, it has a direct relationship with what’s going on. If AAP’s fate changes, the importance of your film changes, regardless of how good the film is. Also, since the media is not going to cover AAP fairly, this film becomes a crucial addition to the discourse. Don’t get me wrong, not for a second am I saying this should be an instrument of propaganda, your own treatment and approach is far from that. But any little thing that contributes to the discourse is so valuable, isn’t it? Did you feel this urgency also? Was the film more important, or was the importance of the film more important?

KR

All these goals were linked to each other. The quality of articulation also matters. We gradually realized that we wanted to say something really, really well. More than the person (Kejriwal), we wanted our take on the ideas to come out clearly, because that is what will endure, the conversation around that will evolve. Also, we learned filmmaking and understood storytelling while we were making this film, so it was a multi-tasking process for us. We wanted to foreground the politics and we had no precedent in the telling of this story, no references, to tell a story through the politics. If we were to do this now, it would take much lesser time.

VS

And we kept pushing our deadlines, and kept getting dejected at having pushed our deadlines. Our team also comprised of completely fresh people – the final editor of our film had joined us as an intern, with no sense of filmmaking, he didn’t even know how to turn on a Mac then, but he is one of the two final editors of the film – Abhinav Tyagi. The other editor is Manan Bhatt, who had helped us with some promo videos on “Ship of Theseus” – he came on later. The four of us basically moved into a house and began editing extensively.

JV

I love this and totally understand. “Leaving Home” was also made by a team of entire first-timers, every one of them. Perhaps it takes that urgency and hunger to get through projects like this. But was it giving you heartburn, the delay?

VS

Every day.

KR

A lot.

JV

Were you also scared that the film may become irrelevant?

KR

Yes. In fact we used to ask this in every feedback screening…if the film was dated. Initially people would say that sometimes, but once we reached the sweet spot in our edit, that doubt went away.

VS

Also, the advantage or curse was that everybody knew the story.

JV

That’s more of a curse, probably.

VS

Or it can be an advantage also, because everybody wants to know more of the story.

JV

Somewhat, but it is more of a curse because they are matching expectations of what they believe the story to be to what you are showing.
I experienced that with my second film, Baavra Mann, – I remember doing the screening of my first cut with maybe ten people – handpicked people, most from the media and entertainment fields. And they trashed the film, absolutely savaged it. My colleague Dhruv Sehgal was traumatized – it was his first film too. We went out for dinner, just the two of us, and I asked him to chill. He said, but ten people saying they hated it can’t be wrong. I said, but if you notice, except for one thing that both you and I partly agree with, everybody is saying different things. They are bringing their baggage or expectation into it – all those people had a view on Sudhir Mishra. And they were only focusing on the negatives in the film, so the room became like that. Dhruv said, but there was so much negative energy, which I laughed off. Now, usually, I anyway have this attitude toward criticism, when beyond a point (that point is important, of course) I just say – you don’t get it, and just move on. It is impossible to function otherwise. Also, I would have been much more insecure if this had been my first film, as it was his, so I totally understood why he was reacting like this. Anyway, we went back, made a few changes, really small ones, and did another screening with people who did not know him, or have a background to him, and it went brilliantly. Literally, the other extreme. So  often, it is baggage and the energy in the room – they make such a difference.

KR

Very true, the energy in the room is critical. And, we also used to focus more on the unanimous opinions – some critique that is coming again and again. And that’s what we chipped away at.

JV

But I have to ask you this. It is hard enough to make a film on your own. But when there are two of you, how complicated was it? How did you make decisions? The extra conversations you had to have and convincing you had to do would have also taken a lot of time and energy also, right? Did that also delay the film?

KR

It was more a force of nature project, in the sense, there were just two forces here that were hitting at each other and eventually one has to kind of step back, off and on. We have had terrible fights and terrible days but beyond a point you realize that getting personal is not the way forward. You figure out rules for yourself as you go along.

VS

And there is also that insecurity as a first-time director of hearing your own broken voice in some way coming through in the film. Both of us wanted our own imperfections to be somehow relayed in the film too and not just the synergy of two people making a film. It’s a balance between a lot of forces. On various days, you learn to take command, or hand it over to the other person by just gauging. On the question of whether it took more time because of two people working, I have no idea. Maybe on the next project, if we do one together, it will be much faster.

KR

It is really hard to say, I cannot look at this objectively at all.

VS

This is the first project of this scale and ambition for us individually anyway. When we do our own such projects, maybe this would become a bit clearer.

JV

I have to say when I saw your first interview (at the Toronto festival), as someone who doesn’t know you guys at all, felt you did not seem your age. Young people do not speak like this. I don’t know if it is “old soul” syndrome or it is that this film aged you (in a good way) – no young person has made, even conceived of perhaps, a film like this in our country. There is a strange weight of, for lack of better words, wisdom or awareness, that I have not seen in younger people much. You are too young to have this awareness, but I mean this as a compliment of course.

VS

That’s very flattering. We have aged physically for sure, we see our photos from before…

KR

Beyond physically, in other crucial ways too. What I thought was important four years ago is…. pittance today. If I start thinking, it takes me to a space of existential investigation of everything around me, and that definitely ages you, right? For example, I used to be much more insecure and volatile as a person. You feel things should be happening your way, because you are outside of everything, you feel entitled. But when you wrestle with a film every day for 3 or 4 years, you realize that nobody owes you anything. And only you can do whatever needs to be done. It also changes you emotionally, like you stop reacting to certain things. You learn how to prioritize, a lot of practical skills. I feel my ability to articulate disagreements has improved.

VS

And we have learnt that courage has a value. Like the only concrete advice we have received from people while we were making it, is not to make the film. Because it is a political film, because people didn’t think this is an important story. People in the Indian documentary circuit were discouraging us. We have actually done this project on the shoulders of people like Anand (Gandhi). If there one person we aspire to be like in terms of aesthetic and storytelling, who has moved and shaken us out of our slumber, it is Anand Patwardhan, again and again., who represents documentary filmmaking in the country for me more than anyone else.
Then there is someone like Deepa Dhanraj, who has made a couple of seminal political films in the 1980s. The younger generation is now finally taking things in their own hands, like “Placebo”, or “Cities of Sleep” or “Machines” and so on…a lot of breakthrough films in India are now coming out as documentary films, not fiction, and standing with documentary films around the world.

KR

It is also a function of resources, and difficulties for documentary filmmakers to sustain themselves. I think one of the biggest tragedies in India is that the brightest people either die or are forgotten. You know, like poets who are shot by some close-minded zealot.

VS

Which is why there are people who still tell us not to do a political film. People who want the best for you usually give you the worst advice.

KR

And it used to annoy us a lot initially. I mean, no one else is making such films and then, you are actually discouraging us from making it.

JV

It must have helped to be a duo in that scenario.

VS

Yes, absolutely. And then what happened with our crowdfunding also. We were looking to raise $ 20,000 and we ended up raising $ 120,000. Across the world, mostly Indians, about 800 people. The few we met seemed to suggest that they were excited about a film like this and hearing their own story in a way, or a story that was going around in their lives, on the big screen.

KR

Also, a mistrust of mainstream media. They thought this film could combat that.

JV

The young mind, uncluttered by cynicism, would respond to this well, I suspect. They are usually the most receptive to fresh ideas and art too.

VS

Speaking of the which, I should tell you that I got to know of the band Parvaaz because you were talking about them continuously on Facebook and sharing their music. We bought the CD immediately and loved it. And at various points, our initial rough cuts had Parvaaz’s music as reference. Later, of course, we replaced it with original music, but their music was the inspiration that guided the spirit of the rough cut.

JV

Nice! I had no idea. Parvaaz are truly a fantastic band. Hope they see this film when it releases.

KR

Also, what you said about our film on Facebook meant a lot to us…when you said there hasn’t been anything like it…we can’t say this, of course, but to have you say this puts the film in perspective.

JV

I was determined to write about it that night itself because I wanted to help build some buzz while MAMI was still going on. I know what it is like, the pain of trying to have your film being seen, I’ve been through it with “Leaving Home’. If I hadn’t liked your film, I wouldn’t have written about it. But I loved it for being such a fun film about something so important, for not being dated at all as a story (given that it stops at December 2013), for how it makes is feel and think in equal measure, and for how it actually makes us feel young and idealistic again, and care about our politics. I would have let down myself if I did not write about it urgently because we have to try to create this environment for ourselves, where such discourse can be had entertainingly, because it is good for all of us. When something as rare as this comes along, we have to go out of our way to excite people to see it.
But, didn’t you get this response from others too?

VS

A lot of ordinary people said this to us who are not in the film fraternity, a general audience.

JV

I think that is far more valuable.

KR

See, you have a more analytical way of looking at a film…being a filmmaker yourself…so we do want to know what people likely to see the film in richer ways feel about it, you know? We had a lot of people in the general audience coming up and saying, wow, this was just like a film, meaning a fiction feature film, which is of course gratifying but you also crave for more nuanced feedback.

JV

I understand totally what you mean, but I value that general reaction a great deal more, because those people don’t overthink things, and often keep things to its rightful proportion.

VS

Yes, like what happened at MAMI, like when the theatre staff will start lining up in the aisles, they keep going in and out, so that they can see some of the film while being on duty as well. At BFI London, this Indian manager came up after the screening and said – look, I only have this pen right now that I want to give you, because this film has done something to me and reminded me of a lot of stuff.

JV

Now, that is precious. This is the best kind of audience. I remember when I finished “Leaving Home” – initially, everyone around me thought that only Indian Ocean fans would like the film. But I was delighted when it became clear that the biggest fans of the film, by an overwhelming majority, were people who did not know about them or their music at all. That is very different kind of discovery, a truer one perhaps. Of course, it has to do with their music…and that version of the band…absolutely at their peak…

VS

I should tell you even though I have not experienced death yet, of someone close to me, Asheem’s death hits me every 25th December…

JV

Very happy to hear this. I thought people had forgotten.

VS

No, every 25th December without fail. I remember him the most in your film, right through the film he wants to speak, you know…

JV

I’ll never forget the first day we shot for Leaving Home. It is fortuitously with Asheem, at his house. We had set up the camera and sound, I sat opposite him, looked at him and said, so I’ll just start chronologically, and we’ll just converse naturally. He nodded, might have even made some crack as he always was doing. So, I asked my first question, which is in the film, tell me about your childhood. And Asheem started nervously fidgeting and then had tears in his eyes. My whole team was stunned – this was the first moment of shooting for the film and everyone was still establishing his involvement in the project. And then, you have Asheem willing to invest so much into this. It inspired the whole team, and there was a fire and intent from then on that lasted right through the project. This was the moment that ignited it.

VS

That’s very interesting.

JV

Would you consider doing a sequel to “An Insignificant Man”?

VS

I remain fascinated with this story, there is no question about that, and will follow it. But…sequel…I don’t know…right now, it is very hard for me to think of a sequel, not today for sure.

KR

Not anytime soon. It’s still raw; our joints are still hurting from that labour. It’s too immediate right now.

 

 

(Anand Gandhi, the producer of the film, and the renowned director of “Ship of Theseus”, steps into the room at this point, so I cannot resist asking him a couple of questions too before he leaves).

JV

So, let me ask me how did you grow to support this project?

AG

I really admire both Vinay and Khushboo and their ideas and their thoughts. I’ve known them for many years, and learnt a lot from them. Each of them thinks uniquely and they bring to each other the ability of finding clarity when it doesn’t naturally exist in the environment, which is ever-chaotic. That’s what we fall back on each other for and the rest of it is just detail. How we find resources and how to manage them and so on. And inform the dialogue around us in such a way that it becomes more sustainable for all of us.

VS

Anand is the kind of producer who actually gives too much. He should actually not be so optimistic about us. It is because of Anand and his presence that legitimizes our voices and gives it credibility.

AG

Or vice-versa really…

VS

His presence and his championing of the film have allowed us to have a space. He gives us creative freedom, of course, but he has also given us something rare – at no stage has he ever put this project in any sort of monetary question. This, in a climate where all our friends and his friends, have questioned our making a political film. In that isolated environment, his support has been fantastic and dream-like.

AG

But collectively, that is what we want to become – a place where increasingly we would be able to support and invest in ideas and discourses and craftsmanship that strive for enlightenment, excellence and insight.
I remember Khushboo and I had gone for a protest once and she came out and said – not only is our cinema and literature mediocre, even our dissent is mediocre. It’s like Daniel Dennett said there’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear. We often see policies and ideas that we support being defended and argued out in ways that causes great disservice to the cause. That absence of eloquence and rigour in our logical thinking does not help that.
To see these two display the rigour of distilling 500 hours of footage into an eloquent piece of experience and insight is only inspiring and extremely rare. I have known them for a long time and they have always been like this; if anything, they are a little easy on themselves now. They have always had very high standards of integrity and rigour right from their early-twenties. And that’s what I get attracted to in people. For decades, producers in this country have not expected and prioritized standards of craftsmanship, perspective or poetry over money, time and deadlines. And because that has not been incentivised, we now have a generation of filmmakers who are just scared of thinking and taking risks.

VS

You have to understand that is a very difficult standard to achieve – this world, otherwise of great generosity, it is also a very cruel classroom.

JV

Why, did you feel that you could not match his expectations when you were making the film?

VS

Yes. On other days, you feel he doesn’t get the film.

JV

So, how do you resolve that?

KR

So, I remember when he saw one of our cuts. We thought the film was ready, so we asked Anand to come and see it after which we could make a release plan quickly. He did, and then said, this is going to need at least another six months.

(Laughter)

VS

We were heart-broken.

KR

We were like – he just doesn’t get it! What is he even talking about? So, all that happened but eventually we picked his brains and…

AG

But every time they came back with an edit, it was clearly making progress. Every time they would go back to the edit table, I was also learning. I didn’t have much to contribute, but to stay at the side and say – take your time, don’t worry.

JV

But did you guys ever strongly disagree? Because that can also happen.

KR

For us, Anand is also that luxurious, rare thing that you trust. A sounding board we can trust fully because he has no other agenda. So, for that reason, we couldn’t dissent beyond a point with him and were compelled to think about it. And the thing was, that even when we didn’t literally do what he suggested we should, it made us go into certain directions, and organically we ended up removing his discomfort as well, while at it.

AG

And there were many times when the solutions surprised me because they went beyond what I could have suggested or shown them myself.

VS

Also, Anand is a worthy enemy to pick – to say that I disagree with you, because he is extremely rigorous. He never says anything to test the waters.

KR

This discipline of arguing like this is one thing he instilled in us.

JV

So, Anand, let me ask you a producer question now. You don’t care if you don’t make any money out of this?

AG

Not at all. But when you go with an intention like that, and I have done that so many times in my life, there has never been a time when I have not made money. This film has already gone into profits before release. We’re already in profit-phase, because of the crowdfunding success, because of funds the film has won, the pre-sales the film has done so far.

JV

So, your only objective now is to reach the maximum…

AG

…number of people. And keep the conversation going.
I want people to come up and pitch such ideas to us. We are here for this, and for the long-term. I am only going to bring more and more resources to the table.

VS

On this film, we also were very sure that we wanted the conversation to reach more people and that aspiration has also inspired a certain aesthetic on the film. It has inspired us to communicate with the audience in a language they are also comfortable with. With all due respect, there are also documentaries which don’t quite do that.

JV

I feel there is a problem amongst many, particularly in the documentary film circuit, where they prefer being intellectuals rather than communicators. Simplicity is never their objective, it is to present all the complexity in all its complexity. Whereas our jobs as communicators or artists or whatever we are is to…

AG

Distil…

JV

…distil…and to simplify and get ideas into people’s heads in an accessible way.

AG

So, this film has generated warm reviews so far, but there was one criticism for it, which was – it unfolds like a Hollywood thriller.
And these guys were like, shit man…

JV

But that’s a compliment!

AG

That’s a great compliment, exactly! That means a lot of people will watch it, a lot of people will get into it.

(Anand Gandhi has to leave now, so the conversation continues with Khushboo and Vinay.)

 

 

JV

Did watching this story unfold at such close quarters, seeing it from all sides, did it actually reduce your affection for the subject eventually? Or did it enhance it, or did it make you see a bigger picture that you did not see earlier?

KR

While we were shooting the film, we felt the story was so interesting. And the film actually could just capture barely 50% of that interesting narrative between the two of us, but it was a story much more interesting than what we shot. Beyond just being attached to Arvind as a person, we were also constantly observing things that made our eyes stay unblinkingly open. Just the story…now what are they going to do, that was a constant refrain for us. Because they were outsiders who said we want to break into the political system of the largest democracy in the world, and we are going to do it in a particular way. And they were so obviously the underdogs, in the sense everyone kept saying – it is completely impossible, what they are trying to do. Maybe they’ll get two or three seats at best.
So, the story itself was so riveting that we were also audiences while we were making the film. There were so many new ideas and new ways of doing things in the political sphere that we got to see here, that we didn’t have much opportunity to take a breath. We would shoot all day, come back home, put the news on, and be like – oh my god, either what is being reported is so different from what is really happening, or how everything is just edge-of-the-seat stuff.
So, don’t know about affection, but certainly the interest was there right through.

VS

It was a challenge for us to keep that balance between complexity and simplicity. And the choice about what what people to accommodate in this film.
There are some grand characters who we have not been able to accommodate. We were in this constant struggle to find stuff that rises above everything else, to find stuff that is timeless. And then to narrativize it.

JV

How conscious were you that it should be timeless?

KR

It’s a vague thing, the idea of something as timeless, but it became a good measure for something that…things that pose a question, not just something that tells a story. There are deeper concerns that make a film timeless, or deeper ideas that do that. In that sense, all of us are fascinated by those kinds of thought-experimentish things. Like, in the film, that person who says – you shouldn’t cheat the person who bribes you.

JV

Yes, that was one of the many interesting moments in the film. The innocence and the contradiction in that was delightful.

KR

One of the main questions that the film is posing to me, and it is a question that I think will get even more important – that, how moral is it to be an idealist? Because idealism seems like an immovable position. And, in a world that continuously demands different things from you, just while confronting the messy reality one deals with, these are things that the film is trying to articulate in a way. So, I guess the notion of timelessness comes from that laboratory of ideas, I hope we have done that.

VS

Because this came from us trying to understand our subjects every day, trying to seek out our story from within our material, which is deeper than most things.

JV

So, do you feel disappointed with what happened to AAP after that? The splinters within themselves, Yogendra Yadav leaving, who is such an important part of the film? Do all these things disappoint you or were they just subjects for you?

VS

I don’t think we can distance ourselves from them and say, oh, they were just subjects for me. What spending so much time in their proximity has given us is patience.
I am very keen on observing where Yogendra Yadav’s new political party goes, for example. As he himself says, it is at least a decade-long project. And similarly for the AAP, what they do over the next decade. Because anyway, once we stopped shooting we weren’t also as informed about what they were doing. We disappeared into our edit, so we are also aware about how little we know.

JV

Were you surprised by the unpleasantness that happened later?

VS

Yes we were, also because of how it played out. But you must also understand that the AAP’s relationship with the media is very different from the conventional parties’ relationships with the media.
AAP’s conception, its labour pains, its first birthday, all of it has been in the courtyard of the media. And that’s why you see a much more friction-driven relationship there – they both have strong opinions on each other.

JV

So, it fascinated me what you said at the MAMI Q&A that Kejriwal hadn’t even seen the film yet. Now, that is unthinkable in this day and age, that someone in public life, with so much at stake, would allow something to go out in the public domain with vetting it throughly. Was that an outcome of the trust he had on you guys?

KR

There are two reasons for that. One, once we finished shooting, we disappeared for two years, and we were not in touch with them during that time. And two, they didn’t really take this too seriously, they thought it was like a home video or something.

JV

Have you showed it to him, or them, since?

KR

Yes, just last week.

JV

What was the reaction?

KR

It was hard to read the room. They were all there – Arvind, Manish, etc. They did say it was a very good film but it was a somewhat distant kind of reaction.

VS

You have to remember that they are men in their mid-forties who don’t know quite how to express their emotions as much as you’d like them to.

JV

And they would have never seen a film like this in their life, perhaps.

KR

It must have been strange for them, you know, to see themselves on the big screen. Like an out-of-body experience. And also, their destinies are still tied to a very vulnerable electoral thing, so that probably does not leave them completely also. So, they could have seen this with suspicion and concern.

VS

They must have discussed it among themselves though.

JV

Did they say even one thing – why did you put this in the film, or that? Or please remove that.

KR

No, they didn’t, not at all. Also, it was clear from the beginning that they didn’t have the right to tell us. We were always clear that all editorial control was ours.

JV

That is pretty amazing for a political party. This is honesty by example, I cannot imagine this happening with anybody else, any other political party. This is actually a very evolved reaction from them, given they are not very educated in this.

KR

We don’t know how subjects react normally. What has been your experience?

JV

Ok, so, for “Baavra Mann”, Sudhir Mishra called me to his house very late in the night as he was very busy those days, when I finished the film. We started it at about 1 a.m., just him and me, and that was the three hour first cut, I think. He didn’t say a word but he sat up and watched in a very focussed way. He refused to even look at me so I had no idea what he was thinking and it was nerve-racking for me. In the end, he said that it was very disorienting for him to see so much of himself but he liked the way I dealt with things. That’s all he said, more or less.
We never spoke about it after that. But, a few months later, at the very first Q and A of the film, someone pointedly asked him what he thought of the film. He said that what he found the most interesting about the film for him was that the things he was seen speaking of in the film were not really his pre-occupations generally, but I had used his words and his thoughts to talk about what was more dear to me than to him, but not in a manipulative way at all. And he meant this totally as a compliment, at least I took it as one.

KR

That’s fascinating. I don’t know if it is a compliment or not, but it is a great insight. It’s like something one of our consulting editors told us – you filmmakers only make films about yourselves. Which is very interesting.

JV

But contrast this with what a professor of documentary filmmaking in one of the major Indian film institutes said to me after a screening. He said, I would have liked the film more if I had got the director’s, that is, your, point-of-view even more. My response, that what I chose to show is my point-of-view, didn’t wash with him.

KR

Yes, people ask us also – what is your perspective on AAP? They ask us our view on the split between Arvind and Yogendra. Vinay and I feel there are enough seeds in the film to that future possibility, and they are subtle. But the thing is, only when we point people to specific moments is when they say, oh yeah, you’re right. So, in a way, we also have to be our own mouthpiece.
Like the documentary on Anand Patwardhan made by R.V. Ramani. When someone asked Ramani what Patwardhan felt about the film, apparently, after seeing the film, Patwardhan told Ramani that he should not show the film a lot because it puts too much emphasis on him as a person. Again, a very interesting response. Because Anand Patwardhan’s life has been his work. But life is also life.

VS

What about Indian Ocean’s reaction to Leaving Home?

JV

The band loved it instantly, at least Susmit, Rahul and Asheem did, because they had really not expected their own lives to unfold as entertainingly as a story.
The most interesting story in this context is actually that of Asheem’s mother, who had not seen the film. So, there is a moment where Asheem complains how his parents never used to come to see Indian Ocean shows when they had started out, whereas Susmit’s family used to support him much more. You can actually see Asheem’s mother’s face fall on camera – it is heartbreaking really, and then Asheem kind of justifies it for her, saying they were too caught up by their hard lives.
Months later, Asheem called me up from the US, while on tour with Indian Ocean, out of the blue, saying he was thinking about this, and if I would be ok to remove that part from the film because his mother would be upset if she saw this. I said that if he insisted, of course I would remove it, but to think about it more, because it was very valuable and charged moment in the film, after all we were trying to chronicle something, trying to reach out for something more than the obvious, and her dignity was still very much intact in that sequence still. Two days later, he called me again and said it’s ok, leave it in the film.
We continued to struggle to release the film, and no one had seen it then. Then, suddenly Asheem had a stroke (at Doha airport), and later, died. Four months later, there was a Delhi permiere of the film, at British Council, and Asheem’s mother had come for that. She had no idea about what was in the film. I had not had time to come to Delhi and show it to anybody else either (you couldn’t just show it to one specific person). So, you can understand how nervous I was.
After the screening, Susmit came up to me and said she was asking for me. With my heart in my mouth, I went towards her. I knew if she asked me to remove that moment from the film, I would not argue with her and just agree. But she simply looked me in the eye and said, thank you.
I still feel very moved when I think of that. Her son had died just a few months back and it was enough for her that his life had been celebrated thus.

KR

It’s beautiful.

JV

So, coming to the end of this, let me ask – what is your trip as a filmmaker? Has this made you want to do more documentaries, or is it fiction next? Asking both of separately here.

VS

I never thought I’d ever make a documentary film around a political subject, it just happened. Of course, we pursued it actively eventually. Right now, I’m divided about what I want to do but I don’t want to do anything political for a while, because I don’t want to bear the burden of the world on my shoulders when I try to do something creative. But at some point, I will, because it does drive me – politics and their implication in our life is a very important chapter for me. And somewhere, this film allowed me to get close to a lot of ideas and processes I was excited about. What is it that makes our politics what it is, what differentiates a good politician from a bad one or are the two the same person on different days? What is an election essentially and how does it occur? What are newsroom discussions like when the camera goes off? This has been the first taste of those curiousities; hopefully I will persue more.

JV

Would you like to collaborate with each other again?

VS

I would obviously love to but it is not like we are the Jatin-Lalits or the Abbas-Mastans of documentary films, this just happened. We are not a duo. But, right now, for the next few months at least, I don’t want to think of anything right now, the emotional and physical fatigue has not gone yet.

JV

I know exactly what you mean. I was the sole director on Leaving Home and was reduced to being the only producer as well, as I had to do everything by myself, trying to get the film out. Meeting after humiliating meeting, people mocking you, lying to you, not keeping deadlines…the stress put me off filmmaking for a long time.

KR

It has been easier for us as two directors though, because we have had days when it would have been impossible for a single director to get by. Like, there was a time when we had deal with sound, colour correction, VFX, final music editing and also deal with some legal things…all in one month. And I know filmmakers who have done this alone, and it has killed them…it is humiliating, tortourous, it breaks you as a person, it crushes something very essential in you.

JV

Yes, I know exactly what you mean. It happened with me.

KR

No wonder filmmakers are often such miserable people. There have been times when I have loved the film, and then when we go and meet the filmmaker, more often than not, it is disappointing because that person is a hollow shell. Like, they’ve put everything they had to say in the film, so there is nothing better that they have left, what is left immediately are just tackier versions of what they have said.

I would not like to do another documentary, even though that has profoundly affected my aesthetic. There is so much material we came across while making this film that it is hard to not appropriate some of that in fiction. The onus is on a documentary filmmaker for everything to be “true” in the film – that’s the form you’ve chosen. Fiction allows you to be a little flexible with that.

JV

What was your experience with the censor board?

KR

It was quite surreal actually. Our first screening for the CBFC took place in February wherein they just wouldn’t talk to us after the screening. We were just standing in the room and there was this awkwardness in the air because they are supposed to ask us questions and air their concerns, if any. They just refused to do that. Two weeks later, we received a verdict from them that the film has been referred to the Revising Committee by Mr. Nihalani. No reasons were given. Then Mr. Nihalani ofcourse saw the film and immediately after the screening said that we’ll need to procure NOC’s(permissions) from Narendra Modi, Sheila Dixit, Arvind Kejriwal and all other politicians shown in the film. Additionally, he asked us to beep out the names of Congress and BJP. This was rather strange for us. His ground was that since we were using public footage of these leaders and also criticising them, we must take their permission first. We found that the demand was absolutely unethical. If we can’t use footage of politician’s public speeches to reflect on their conduct, then really how do we expect to criticise or evaluate them.

VS

A lot of our friends told us to go ahead and simply release the film online and get done with it. We wanted to fight it and go to the FCAT. We were warned that, in the past, similar films had gone to the FCAT and been rejected. So it was a scary period but we received a lot of support from our crowdfunders and new friends who reached out to us and helped us. Khushboo and our lawyer Apar worked entirely on preparing a thorough case for two months, going back and forth between Delhi and Bombay. The International Documentary Association launched a campaign in support. Finally, we had our FCAT hearing where the jury heard us out. It was a tough hearing and I’m glad Khushboo and Apar had prepared our case well. The FCAT ruled in our favour and called the CBFC’s decision completely unconstitutional.

JV

I think this is another inspiring thing you did. I was one of those who urged you to not waste time and more importantly, energy, by fighting a ridiculously illogical dispensation such as this, and release the film online. But you chose to stand your ground, and it ended very well for you, which proves you were absolutely right.

KR

It was an expensive and filmmaker unfriendly process, honestly. And it’s sad that people who make political films are constantly hounded. We managed to fight and win. But there is an increasing culture of people getting offended at the smallest thing and that has been internalised by authorities now. So authorities are just refusing to clear anything that can be deemed “controversial”. That’s why, the need of the hour is a law which protects filmmakers and artists from such hounding. We need a better Cinematograph Act and a complete rehaul  of the censor board.

JV

No question about that. Anyway, how has this release experience been?

VR

It’s been unexpectedly fantastic. We spent years convincing people that there is an audience for a film like ours. Together with PVR, we decided that alongside the trailer, let’s launch three premiere shows in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. We wanted to gauge interest in these cities. To our complete surprise, the shows were sold out in less than 20 hours. Bangalore was sold out in 2 hrs!

KR

Once we got this reaffirmation, we went in full throttle. We partnered with PVR Vkaao and completely decentralised our film’s distribution. People could simply log on to vkaao.com, choose our film and create a screening in their own city, at any PVR. Once the basic minimum number of tickets were sold for any screening, it gets confirmed. This was never been done before and we saw such great responses. We had confirmed screenings on the opening weekend in Latur, Nagpur, Ahmedabad, Dehradun – I mean all over the country. PVR was so pleasantly surprised and people all over the country were writing to us about how they want to take the film to non-PVR towns.

JV

What a great idea. Hope this sets a precedent too. This film, and its journey, has already set a few of those. Final thoughts?

KR

The film ran in theatres for 4 weeks and is commercially the most successful documentary release in India. We had massive offers from the major online platforms earlier and they came back to us after the film’s release. But against all commercial sense, we decided to release the film online. We feel that the film is aiming at a dialogue which is urgent and relevant is already online. It’s an entertaining film and it’ll help you reflect on our politics while making you laugh.

 

 

 

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