BIFF 2014 #20: Powerless (Katiyabaaz, India-US 2013)

Loha Singh – the 'Robin Hood' of Kanpur

Loha Singh – the ‘Robin Hood’ of Kanpur

Portrait Without BleedThis was the other film, along with Diego Star, that I picked out immediately from the BIFF programme and again I wasn’t disappointed. I have to agree with the brochure’s headline to its blurb on the film: “Lively, energetic and full of larger than life characters”. It’s good to see more documentaries from India making it onto the festival circuit. Many, like this production, involve some overseas input. The two directors Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa both have strong links to Uttar Pradesh in Ghaziabad and Kanpur respectively. Fahad Mustafa trained in Vienna and some of the film’s creative contributions come from his Viennese contacts. The majority of crew and HoDs comprise an impressive array of Indian talent. The film is a co-production because of the input of ITVS, the American organisation funded by public donations that feeds documentary programming into the Public Broadcasting System in the US.

The ‘powerless’ city of the title is Kanpur, with a population of nearly 3 million. Kanpur was one of the major industrial cities of British India (under the anglicised name ‘Cawnpore’) and was known as the ‘Manchester of India’ because of the large number of textile mills. Most of those have now gone (but we see an operating mill of the British India Corporation, now state-owned in the opening shots of the film) but many of the tanneries remain (there were once 400) and it is still known as the leather capital of India. Tanning requires power and creates water pollution. Because of the outages many businesses use diesel generators which add to air pollution. This is an unhealthy and poor city and the lack of electricity makes the situation worse. Kanpur has the worst electricity supply problems of any major Indian city and the residents are so angry with the local electricity supplier (KESCO) that they have taken to stealing electricity from whatever cables are actually live.

The documentary introduces three principal characters. The new boss of KESCO is Ritu Maheshwari and she is determined to reduce the theft of electricity and make the state utility more efficient. She establishes hit squads who tour the city threatening to disconnect those who are stealing. But as quickly as the squads move through the city, the specialist thieves like Lola Singh re-connect people illegally. He knows how to disable local transformers and how to attach the illegal cables – katiyas. It’s very dangerous work and at one point Singh shows us his twisted fingers and scarred limbs recounting the number of accidents he has survived. The fight then becomes three-handed when a local ‘community’ politician becomes involved, seeing the opportunity to boost his own status by bringing down the KESCO chief.

What we don’t see is any suggestion as to how the basic problem of energy supply can be resolved. The filmmakers argue that what they are concerned with is the inequality inherent in contemporary Indian society. They didn’t want to make a film about the poor as ‘victims’ or to be didactic in analysing the situation. They have tried to present both Ritu Maheshwari and Lola Singh in a balanced way and attempted to enable the issues to become visible as we watch them at work. The executive, for instance, suffers from chauvinism in her company. The film works so well because it is the product of highly competent documentarists augmented by commercial Indian filmmakers who contribute an excellent music score and sound design. It is very accessible and entertaining as well as a real eye-opener about the appalling state of Indian industrial infrastructure.

As India goes to the polls, the frustration with the Indian political system becomes more and more visible. As the filmmakers suggest, electrical power is not available on a universal basis. It goes first to the rich and India’s poor have the least access to electricity of any major population group worldwide. The people are ‘powerless’ in this sense. But do they have political power? I’m apprehensive about the result of the elections, especially if the BJP get a majority but I’m heartened by quality work like this film.

The film’s website gives more background and here’s a teaser trailer:

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