It is difficult to categorise Katiyabaaz. At a time of ubiquitous optimism and the bathetic sense that great change is in the offing, the 80-minute documentary on Kanpur's power crisis reminds us of how distant the real India is from the imagined India we speak of in studios and drawing rooms. In fact, until you watch the film, and unless you are from Kanpur yourself, you might mistake the film for not belonging to contemporary India at all. That the documentary is indeed set during a one-year period spanning 2011-12 is a sobering thought. Here are the dramatis personae: Ritu Maheshwari, the Indian Administrative Services officer who takes over as chairman of Kanpur Electricity Supply, or KESCo, in April 2011; Loha Singh, the "katiyabaaz" of the title, who is wildly popular in his locality for helping the poor steal power; and Irfan Solanki, a Samajwadi Party member of Legislative Assembly who runs a campaign against what he thinks is Ms Maheshwari's high-handedness. Kanpur, once the Manchester of the East, is today among the most polluted cities in the world. Part of this has to do with the widespread use of diesel-spewing generators that are de rigueur in a city that witnesses power cuts lasting up to 16 hours on any given day. At the end of the documentary, the director duo of Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa remind the viewer of the grid collapse that plunged north India into darkness for two days in 2012. The incident, which made international headlines, was "just another day for Kanpur". Uttar Pradesh (UP) has a habit of being in the news for the wrong reasons, but the power situation in Kanpur, as the film painstakingly shows, is particularly grim. Due to massive power cuts, electricity theft is rampant, which in turn causes immense pressure to build on the transmission network, leading to frequent fires. And so goes on the cycle repeatedly. In the midst of all this, Loha Singh, fingers burnt and twisted due to the work he does, earns the community's respect for ensuring a steady supply that runs homes and businesses. How does one begin to make sense of such a damaging state of affairs? The films follow Ms Maheshwari during her yearlong stint as she tries to reform the "system". This means not only making consumers pay long-pending electricity bills, but also getting her juniors to stop accepting bribes from those who steal electricity. There is the added problem of separating those who can afford to pay but don't from those who can't even make ends meet. The entire mechanism has a diabolical logic of its own which Ms Maheshwari, to her credit, tries to change. But the "system", broken as it is, is still well-oiled enough to resist her efforts. She faces pressures both from within KESCo and from the public at large.
In a belated realisation, she tells the camera how difficult it is for those in government to take tough measures, because when they do they are sent away and then there is nothing left to do. Within a year of her posting at KESCo, she is transferred to Pilibhit. There are no villains here. To Loha Singh and his ilk, Ms Maheshwari represents the powers that be who live in a world that is far removed from their problems. Mr Solanki, the consummate politician, uses the discontent brewing against Ms Maheshwari to return to the state Legislative Assembly on a Samajwadi ticket. The real villains, of course, are ensconced in their plush homes in Lucknow and Delhi. Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi come down for an election rally during which the former professes, impotently: "It is important that Kanpur have electricity." Yes, we know Mr (former) prime minister! Mayawati drops anchor, too, and says "if the Centre does not intervene, UP will have 24-hour electricity", before flying off in her helicopter, as the crowds cheer wildly. Perhaps the crowds, after all, deserve leaders like her. Things remain the same. Loha Singh can do little but be a katiyabaaz. In a tender scene, he returns home to a mother who beseeches him to get a steady job so she can pay the health bills of his father. Loha Singh wipes her tears but is back the next day doing what he must. In a supreme irony, the movie's final scene shows him unsuccessfully but unapologetically prove to the man who pays for his drinks that he is no slouch. Meanwhile, the police arrive after some locals, fed up of gaming the system endlessly, beat up an electricity board official. A woman prays to Allah, with tears in her eyes, for electricity. Entire generations live and work in the dark. Life goes on.