Documentary channel

Documentary on AAP's 2013 Delhi campaign is a chronicle of a crisis foretold

Lalit Vachani’s 'An Ordinary Election' looks at Shazia Ilmi's poll campaign.

It's perhaps inevitable that a film about the Aam Aadmi Party’s 2013 election campaign for the Delhi assembly will mean many things for many people: archival documentary, record of history in the making, lesson in modern campaigning techniques, and chronicle of a crisis foretold.

Lalit Vachani’s An Ordinary Election was shot before AAP won Delhi for the first time, gave it up after a 49-day term on dubious moral grounds and retook the capital this year. It was completed before party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal went to Bangalore to find a cure for his hacking cough and before party heavyweights such as Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav publically aired their dissent. It was in the cans long before the crucial meeting of AAP’s National Council was called on Saturday to decide the fate of Bhushan and Yadav, who have been removed from the party’s Political Affairs committee.

An Ordinary Election is rooted in a specific moment, and although Vachani had no way of knowing it then, it views the race for Delhi over the head of the wrong horse. Vachani chose to follow former journalist Shazia Ilmi’s campaign for the RK Puram constituency from the start to the finish, recording the experiences of the candidate and party volunteers. Ilmi lost the election by 327 votes to a candidate from the Bharatiya Janata Party. The year after shooting was completed, Ilmi, to everyone's surprise, decided to quit AAP, complaining of the lack of inner-party democracy, and signed up to the BJP.

“There was no way of knowing then that Shazia was not going to be with the party,” Vachani told Ilmi is undoubtedly convincing as she magnificently works the crowd. “I was meant to be here," she declared about her association with AAP. "I wasn’t meant to be anywhere else.” An Ordinary Election is set to be screened in Delhi on March 30 and 31, at the Films Division in Mumbai on April 4, and in Kolkata on April 6 and 7.

AAP equals drama

Ilmi’s campaign is filled with ups and downs, advances and setbacks. The newly formed party grapples with the challenges of raising funds, volunteer logistics, media coverage and booth management. Campaign managers are hired and fired; voters are cynical and dismissive; Ilmi deals with the aftermath of a sting operation. “The film has archival value, it is a record of a new party starting out, of how they construct the aam aadmi as they go along,” said Vachani, whose previous work includes The Boy in the Branch, The Men in the Tree (both exploring the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and In Search of Gandhi, which recreates the Salt March of 1930.

Vachani and his partner Srirupa Roy were initially considering a documentary on new political formations and the Lok Sabha election of 2014. “It turned out that we didn’t get our big grant for our film on the national election, but we had already started our research,” Vachani said. Three constituencies in South Delhi were identified, and RK Puram was chosen because, among other things, Vachani had direct access to Ilmi through a friend. Budgetary restraints also meant that Vachani had just one crew to film the election.

“If I had got the grant, the plan would have been to study a couple of more campaigns by other parties, or look at AAP in the Lok Sabha election,” Vachani said. “However, I am glad it turned out this way – the film would have been diffuse if we had started looking at other political formations.”

An Ordinary Election was shot in phases between August and December 2013. Vachani and his crew had unfettered access to the AAP functionaries, including the ousted campaign managers and a shop-keeper named Mohan Agrawal who swears by the party's mission to root out corruption but is kicked out after the election has ended. “The access was incredible, they were very open to being filmed, and in fact they were so porous that I knew of spies coming in and getting their databases,” said the 50 year-old filmmaker. “It was quite endearing and I was disarmed. I could have been from a rival party misusing the footage.”

The Aam Aadmi Party’s meteoric rise to prominence and power has consumed journalists and political scientists and has already inspired another documentary, Proposition for a Revolution, in which filmmakers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla follow the party’s leadership from their heady early days in Pragati Maidan in 2011 to their quest to form a government in the 2013 Delhi election. “Proposition for a Revolution is a view of the ground from above, with incredible access to Kejriwal and the top leadership, while I have the perspective from below,” Vachani said. Both films focus on the build-up to the first Delhi election, and do not look at AAP’s confounding victory in the February elections.

Lessons from 2013, rather than 2015

In the absence of an analysis of how AAP convinced its supporters and detractors to back it the second time round, An Ordinary Election remains an incomplete narrative of a new party’s growing pains. “I was in Germany and I wasn’t able to film the second election,” Vachani said. (He teaches courses on political documentary and documentary theory and production at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen there.)

“There was the danger of the film going on and on, but I wanted it to be self-enclosed, and the story of this campaign with an epilogue at best,” Vachani added. “The logic of carrying on with the film was that it was talking about events as they were happening. I was particularly interested in the politics of swaraj, the way it was used by leaders, volunteers and candidates. I wanted to end the film with Shazia’s voice talking about swaraj and why she left the party.”

It’s possible to view An Ordinary Election as a cautionary tale of AAP’s systemic flaws. Its motley bunch of leaders and volunteers contribute to the party’s rainbow character, but also precipitate the frequent appearance of dark clouds. Footage that failed to make the final cut of the documentary includes Kejriwal’s speeches in which he repeatedly praises the dedication of Vinod Kumar Binny, who followed Ilmi after AAP gave up power in Delhi in 2013, Vachani said.

AAP’s inner-party democratic culture, which supposedly distinguishes the outfit from its rivals, has blown up in the party’s face with the recent battles between Kejriwal on the one hand and Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav on the other. An Ordinary Election provides some ideas about why AAP is unique, as well as why it will be troubled for some time by its autonomy-loving members who are united by a desire to rehaul the political system ‒ but little else. Said Vachani, “The party is by no means a finished product.”

Lalit Vachani.



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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.