Creatures of Light and Darkness

What Kanpur's electricity struggles show us about the nature of good and evil

01 June, 2013

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.

As last summer’s catastrophic 20-state blackout demonstrated, power shortages aren’t specific to Kanpur. Uttar Pradesh, however, suffers more than most states. In a report prepared earlier this year by ICRA Limited (formerly Investment Information and Credit Rating Agency of India Limited) and Credit Analysis & Research Limited, the state came last on a ranked assessment of performance and credit-worthiness in nationwide power utilities. Much of this is due to excessive overdrawing of electricity allotments. According to the central power ministry, Uttar Pradesh withdrew an extra 2,371 megawatts between April 2012 and February 2013, contributing in part to last July’s northern grid collapse. The state authorities’ inability to collect outstanding bills on time further contributes to a paucity of funds for infrastructural upgrades. Mustafa pointed out to me that Uttar Pradesh hasn’t built a new power plant in 22 years.

For all its political and social ramifications, however, Katiyabaaz focuses more on storytelling than on documentation. Mustafa and Kakkar shot over 200 hours of footage, including numerous interviews with business owners, public servants and administrators, which they edited down to 80 minutes. “We just went by what would make the most exciting and most cinematic narrative,” said Mustafa in an email interview. The social, infrastructural and economic implications of power shortages are therefore examined mostly through the prism of the two central figures and their daily routines, supported by a handful of additional interviews and the necessary minimum of facts and figures.

Ritu Maheshwari, the first female chief of the Kanpur Electricity Supply Company, who arrives in the city with express instructions to counter the destruction wrought by electricity theft. COURTESY FAHAD MUSTAFA AND DEEPTI KAKKAR

The directors, who both studied history and have worked on research-intensive human rights projects, spent months digging up details about electricity struggles in Kanpur before the actual filming. Previous experience, however, had cautioned them against using a data-heavy exposition to articulate a diffuse subject. Their 2010 collaboration, FC Chechnya, began as a 15-minute expository project on European asylum-seeking procedures but ballooned, for practical and creative reasons, into a longer, more discursive account. Quickly realising the limitations of dealing with all the tangled issues impacting these procedures, they decided to focus on the titular football club, formed by a group of Chechen asylum-seekers in the Austrian state of Carinthia. The result was a 70-minute feature about the club, highlighting the ways in which it doubled as a support group for asylum seekers. And it’s through this prism that the filmmakers drew attention to the shortcomings and the human costs of the Austrian immigration system.

Another major inspiration for Katiyabaaz, Kakkar told me, was a fictional narrative: Gillo Pontecorvo’s paradigm-shifting 1966 feature, The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo restricted his film’s point of view to a handful of specific characters, efficiently using them to make larger philosophical points about the harsh realities of violent revolution and guerrilla warfare. Mustafa and Kakkar also took cues from influential documentarians, such as Frederick Wiseman, who mixed subjective and objective storytelling to study social institutions like hospitals, high schools and police departments.

IN EXPLORING THE CAUSES OF THE KANPURPOWER OUTAGES,Katiyabaaz refuses to point fingers at obvious targets. “There is enough blame being dealt out already when it comes to electricity in Kanpur, so we really need to get beyond that,” Mustafa wrote to me. “Responsibility, yes, that is something we can pin down.” Kakkar added that “the film positions Loha and Ritu as antagonists, but in fact, they are both powerless beyond a degree in the face of the glaring energy poverty, the biggest obstacle in both their paths.” Instead, the idea of collective responsibility lends a simultaneously expansive and intimate tone to Mustafa and Kakkar’s humanist drama. Katiyabaaz hinges on the suggestion that there are no bad people to blame for Kanpur’s energy crisis—only people in conflict with each other and, occasionally, themselves. For every line that Loha extends from an overloaded transformer to a friend’s workshop, he adds to the likelihood of an electrical fire or a day-long blackout, dangers that do eventually play out in the documentary. And he is but one notorious member of a legion of enterprising individuals running illegal connections between Kanpur’s socially stratified neighbourhoods. Surely, all that stolen electricity means big losses for someone out there, namely the state treasury.

Loha’s nemesis, Maheshwari, arrives in Kanpur with express instructions to counter the destruction wrought by the electricity thieves, but all her attempts to overcome entrenched ways of doing things are stalled by (politically and financially motivated) private interests and indifferent middle management. As the film switches between the two characters, it becomes clear that both are operating in ultimately unsustainable positions.

It would have been easy to demonise Maheshwari as the malignant half of a convenient David and Goliath rivalry. Kakkar and Mustafa, however, take a sharp left turn from the black-and-white conflict hinted at in the initial scenes, and enter instead the grayscale nuance of real life. We see Maheshwari not as a dysfunctional bureaucrat but, rather, as a well-intentioned and competent individual diverted from reform-minded idealism to resigned realpolitik by impossible circumstances. Her scenes become a hopeless examination of the myriad ways in which institutional entropy extinguishes the rare spark of genuine motivation. Early in her stint as managing director of KESCO, she adopts a no-nonsense approach to administrative tasks, politely but firmly chastising the gangs of sullen all-male underlings who frustrate her efforts. Her comprehensive strategy includes the implementation of a streamlined customer-petition-process, cell-phone service alerts and regular meetings with complainants. Task forces are organised to collect outstanding bills, catalogue illegal connections and enforce termination of service to those violating legal conditions. A number of electricity thieves are even imprisoned. Unfortunately, her plans—executed haphazardly by a molasses-slow bureaucracy—prove to be too little too late. Collections continue to drop as prospective customers choose to steal electricity; maintenance costs skyrocket as transformers explode from undue stress; and even legitimate account-holders skip out on bills via judicious bribery.

Maheshwari’s professional interactions are further complicated by the constant tension generated by her position as a woman in charge of a visibly male-dominated company. Requests are met with sulky silences or condescending smirks from employees who take their time fulfilling them. Outside KESCO, she becomes a convenient scapegoat for politicians gathering votes—she is sneeringly alluded to in one speech as “a proud woman and a bureaucrat”—and is burned in effigy, as the face of exploitation, in the communities hardest hit by blackouts. The film stops short of commenting explicitly on the gender politics of the situation, but the conflict is hard to miss, escalating in the third act to an ugly exchange between Maheshwari and Irfan Solanki, an opportunistic local MLA offended by her refusal to tolerate his aggressive posturing. It’s an intensely discomfiting tableau: Maheshwari behind her desk, struggling to maintain her composure as Solanki bellows at her—“Put down your finger, I am not your servant. You’ll listen to me not once but 50 times over”—as hangers-on on both sides watch, buzzard-like, for signs of weakness. Despite a mostly unruffled exterior, it becomes apparent that the continuous setbacks and single-minded hostility take their toll on her, culminating in a dispiriting interview in which she admits to have resigned herself to going through the motions. “The best government officer, I would say, is the one who comes to office, signs off on the files, goes off and is very cool,” she tells the camera wistfully. “For his or her children, it is the best life.”

If Maheshwari provides the institutional point of view, Loha Singh stands in for the plight of Kanpur’s working poor. To those whose daily wage hinges upon Loha’s ability to siphon electricity, he is a feted hero, greeted with almost universal affection as he does his rounds. The cottage industries of an entire neighbourhood are shown to be running solely through his efforts. “We are all indebted to him for the work we are able to do,” says one unnamed tailor. “All of it is thanks to him.” His diminutive physical stature is offset by a messianic persona based, according to the filmmakers, on Bachchan’s Angry Young Man. His professional pride is frequently on display, in alternating bursts of bravado and largesse. One moment, he’s pronouncing sagely (in reference to KESCO and himself) that “the master has become the student”, and in the next, he’s grinning bashfully in response to his involvement in maintaining the area’s running water during the critical month of Ramzan. Electricity theft “is indeed baazi [a gamble],” observes Mustafa. “There are masters and apprentices of this sport, as well as legends and failures.” There is no doubt about which category Loha belongs in, but the film shows us both his trials and triumphs. There is also a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the dangers posed by the literal and metaphorical sparks that seem to fly all around him.

A few awkward family shots aside, the formal obligations of Maheshwari’s job forced Mustafa and Kakkar to maintain a certain distance from her personal life. In contrast, they appear to have accompanied Loha everywhere, even to the one cramped room that he shares with his mother and eight other relatives. The creative team walks a delicate line, though, avoiding the tone of victimhood that characterises so many stories dealing with poverty. Voyeurism is replaced here by verisimilitude, an honesty born of patience and a mutual sense of trust. Some of that trust springs from the crew’s local connections—Fahad and assistant director Jamal ‘Faizy’ Mustafa are both from Kanpur—but the rest was earned over years of bonding with Kanpurias. Beyond some initial jitters, Loha proved entirely uninhibited in front of the camera, allowing the filmmakers to capture some intensely personal exchanges. “We noted that people living in as dire poverty as Loha and his family are often all too vocal in front of the camera,” Kakkar wrote to me. “Privacy is a privilege of those who can afford it.” In one scene, Loha trudges home wearily for dinner, only to be accosted by his distraught mother. Fearing for his life and liberty, she begs him to change professions, alternating between angry threats and cajoling entreaties. Loha, having spent the day fighting off property owners whose power supply he’d disrupted, reminds her gently that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, before joining her in a tearful embrace. “To get that particular scene, we did a continuous camera roll of seven hours,” Kakkar wrote. “We were surprised by the gamut of emotions they went through. They fought, cried, ate, fought more, watched TV and even napped with us around. The three minutes are just a small window into their relationship and concerns.”

AT ITS CORE,Katiyabaaz is a film about class conflict, a struggle of which everyone in Kanpur seems aware, although only those on the short end of the stick acknowledge. Personalities and worldviews are shown to be the result of lifetimes spent in  very specific sets of circumstances; there is real weight behind much of the anger running through this film. At a round-table between KESCO representatives and local leaders, members of the latter group harangue city engineers about the prioritising of wealthier areas in distribution decisions. The grievances range in tone from cynical (“How is it that when a VIP travels to the city, we get 24 hours of electricity?”) to outright ominous (“If the situation becomes violent and they target protesters instead of culprits, this city will not remain peaceful”). The maternity ward doctor at a local clinic delivers a plaintive diatribe about power distribution dictating life or death for her working-class patients; power outages often prompt her to turn some mothers away. “The power cuts happen suddenly,” she told the filmmakers. “We face a lot of problems because it takes a while to switch on the generator. That could lead to critical situations for babies.” A business owner recalls the days when Kanpur was known as “the Manchester of the East”, flush with tanneries and textile mills. But as the wealthy owners of most of these big facilities moved on to more business-friendly cities, they left behind a multitude of small workshops to deal with the infrastructural slack. “The situation is so grim that if we don’t use generators, the workers will die of starvation,” laments the proprietor of one such workshop, who has resigned himself to a consistently low production. The proliferation of generators, one of the title cards tells us, has contributed to Kanpur becoming one of the most polluted cities in India. (According to a World Health Organization study published in 2011, Kanpur’s air is the second worst in the country, after Ludhiana’s.)

The pressures caused by Kanpur’s power shortages are vented on a cyclical basis and often end in violent riots. Some of these skirmishes, involving dozens of people and resulting in injuries to KESCO personnel, are depicted in the film’s most charged scenes, captured at some risk to the crew. “In 2005, a raids officer was burned alive,” Kakkar told me. “Every year as the summer approaches, tempers and violence flare up too.” Meanwhile, confirming Loha’s cynical predictions in the film regarding politicians and elections, Manmohan Singh flies in for the odd conciliatory speech, the MLAs disappear after collecting votes, and the hoarding of capital continues unchecked.

GIVEN THAT THE SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES of institutional failure aren’t particular to India, it’s unsurprising that Katiyabaaz has received widespread praise. Somewhat more counterintuitive is the fact that, although its budget came from nine film funds in eight countries, none of the money was contributed from India. “In the face of Bollywood, there are very limited outlets for documentary films in India,” notes Kakkar. “Hopefully, we can change that.”

Indeed, the shadow of Bollywood hangs over Katiyabaaz in more ways than one, including the slightly jarring addition of a soundtrack that self-consciously incorporates Bollywood tropes to accentuate the drama in scenes that require no such aid. The film opens with ‘Kanpura’, a song written by Varun Grover (Gangs of Wasseypur) and performed by Rahul Ram and Amit Kilam of Indian Ocean, and ends with ‘Ghayal Hiraniya’, written by Pakistani qawwal Fareed Ayaz. Despite being great works of musicianship, the songs co-exist uneasily with the content of the film, literalising some of what is otherwise left implied on screen.

Although expressing an obvious enthusiasm for the soundtrack, Kakkar implied that its Bollywood overtones are, in part, intended to enhance the commercial appeal of the film. “We wanted from the very beginning for the film to find an audience in India and not remain restricted” to niche audiences, Kakkar told me. The duo bristled a little at the Bollywood label—they admitted in an Indiewire interview that they didn’t much care for it—but appear to have been compelled to pander just a tad to the commercial realities of the Indian film market, where an energetic soundtrack and slick packaging make a lot of difference. This is admittedly a complaint that reflects more on the inflexibility of the domestic market than on any shortcoming in the creative team. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that serious filmmakers like Mustafa and Kakkar have to worry about marketability at all. “The audience is out there,” Kakkar herself said in response to another question. “They don’t want the same Bollywood formula every Friday. It’s the government, studios and distributors that should take note.”

The spectre of Bollywood aside, there’s no doubt that Katiyabaaz is an ambitious example of the (not so) New Indian Cinema that has attracted much attention lately. But where many new filmmakers associate indie sensibilities with in-jokes accessible only to narrowly defined sets of cinephiles or urban Indians, Mustafa and Kakkar look outward, at the larger picture, using the peculiarities of Kanpur. As Mustafa reminded me, “At the end of the day, this is a lived experience for everyone from India.”