THROUGHOUT THE TAUT 80-MINUTE runtime of Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar’s documentary Katiyabaaz (Powerless), electricity is referred to almost as a divine being. Mercurial and all-powerful, it sustains livelihoods and inspires worship, inciting riots and barroom discourse alike. It’s unsurprising, then, that a story about power shortages and electricity theft in Kanpur would assume mythic proportions, the film’s avatars of authority and subversion competing to bottle ever-elusive lightning.
The avatars in question are IAS officer Ritu Maheshwari—the first female chief of the Kanpur Electricity Supply Company (KESCO)—and katiyabaaz (electricity thief) Loha Singh, the puckish Robin Hood to Maheshwari’s no-nonsense sheriff. Although the two never meet, the filmmakers position them as law versus anarchy in a tug-of-war over Kanpur’s limited power supply. Utilising a mix of fly-on-the-wall observation and talking-head interviews, the film shadows the pair over eight months, constructing an overarching narrative of the city’s mounting energy crisis and the resulting socio-economic fallout. Premiering last February at Berlinale and continuing, as the only Indian selection, at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this April, it has garnered enthusiastic audience responses and plaudits from media outlets such as the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter. Martina Knoben from the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung called it “vital, relevant filmmaking”, while Tom Brook dedicated an entire segment to it on the BBC’s Talking Movies, singling it out as an effective example of documentary storytelling.
Maheshwari and Singh’s symbolic clash plays out against a backdrop of escalating civil unrest in Kanpur, caused by daily power cuts, of up to 16 hours, to which the majority of the city’s three million inhabitants are subjected. Besides exposing them to the dreaded 45-degree-celsius temperatures, power failures cut off running water and paralyse the industrial machinery that sustains the city’s vast network of small businesses. The resulting tension manifests itself in a number of unpleasant ways, from increasingly strained relations between the power company and local political groups to riots on the streets and violence directed at KESCO employees.