Katiyabaaz, released as Powerless abroad, ends with a reference to the blackouts in 2012 that affected over 600 million Indians and made international headlines for being the biggest power outage in history. "In Kanpur, it was just another day." Winner of the best investigative feature at the 61st National Awards and nominated for best documentary feature at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in 2013, Katiyabaaz is a testimony to the battle for electricity plaguing thousands of Indian towns and cities. An industrial town without electricity sounds like an oxymoron, but that's just what Kanpur is. The film shows a derelict picture of a city under criss-crossed electric cables, waking up to a revolution of a different kind.
Written by Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa, it is heartening to see the third documentary after Gulabi Gang and The World Before Her to achieve a multi-city commercial release this year. Named so after a local term used to denote the experts who steal electricity by tapping into the city's power grids, Katiyabaaz pitches characters from two extreme worlds against each other. Ritu Maheshwari has been appointed as the new MD of Kesco (Kanpur Electricity Supply Company). A stern and conscientious officer, she begins a crackdown on illegal power supply, rampant in the city where nobody seems to pay their power bills. With power outages going up to 18 hours a day, the people's saviour appears in the form of the diminutive Loha Singh, with betel-stained teeth and a glittering eye. The swashbuckling hero is a master of the katiya, and risks his life to steal electricity to light up homes, markets, hospitals, mills. Many people in the film proclaim that "Karobaar toh Loha ki meherbaani se hi chalta hai"(Business runs because of Loha).
Loha, whose 'hunar' (talent) is what keeps the city lit and, in consequence, running, is an archetype. He earns a pittance for what he does. But he has paid for it in the form of burnt, blistered and disfigured fingers. He rants against the political system that uses people's plights for electoral gains, "Mohar laga do, mohar laga do, kamal pe haath pe," year after year. His foul-mouthed tirades sketch out the lone ranger in him, but get repetitive after a while. Maheshwari is given ample screen time to point out the city's problems, but enough seat-time to do nought about it.
Caught between the lethal heat of a north Indian summer and a debilitating power crisis, the people of Kanpur pray for divine intervention - they perform aarti before the transformer, they chant fervently. "O strong and able one, bring us light." However, this absurdly vicious cycle of outage-theft-outage doesn't absolve anybody in the film, not the inefficient and corrupt discom (some of whose corrupt employees teach people like Loha to steal), nor the "suffering" public that has run up unpaid bills to the tune of thousands of crores or rupees. During one Kesco raid to cut illegal power lines, the penalised citizen questions the officer in a tragicomic scene, "If we pay the fine, we won't have to pay the bill?" A mob rains down upon some low-level Kesco officials, while the town elections are fought on the wave of the power crisis. Roti, kapda, makaan aur bijli are the needs of the 21st century.
The 84-minute documentary portrays stark realities that mainstream media is mostly immune to, building up to a moving climax. While deftly edited, the narrative appears staged at many points, particularly with Loha, whose devilish laughter comes across as strangely forced. The strong Hindi dialect used in the film is also difficult to process in part. The cinematography captures the social, economic and cultural milieu of the erstwhile "Manchester of the East", Kanpur, in a vivid manner - panoramic sweeps of the Ganga besieged with billowing smoke from the industries, or well-lit markets, roads and whole colonies suddenly plunging into darkness, belie a telling tale. The soundtrack, composed by Amit Kilam and Rahul Ram of Indian Ocean, is a catchy ode to the hinterland, set to crafty lyrics that sum up the city's fate in one ironic line, "Aadhe bujhe chirag ke talle poora Kanpoora" (The whole city of Kanpur lies beneath a half-lit lamp).