Katiyabaaz is a refreshing experiment

In the mad rush of the 2-crore club Kicks and Dabanggs, seldom do you find a documentary film release widely in mainstream theatres across India. But, Katiyabaaz, an 80-minute documentary on the power-crisis in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur city, breaks the norms. Directed by Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa, who have previously collaborated on several research-based human rights projects, the film has been released in 60 theatres across the country, in what is one of the biggest releases for an independently-made film. After screenings at the Berlin and Tribeca film festival last year, the film released in India on Friday. Needless to say, Anurag Kashyap, the guardian angel of meaningful cinema in Bollywood, and his production house Phantom films, have supported the documentary.

The film documents the lives of the first female chief of the Kanpur Electricity Supply Company (KESCO), Ritu Maheshwari and Loha Singh, a fixer of katiyas— wires illegally attached to transmission towers in order to steal electricity—and  over a period of eight months. Based on the conflicting narratives of Maheshwari and Singh, along with relentless coverage of events related to the power crisis Kanpur has been roiling with– from riots to transformer-pujas– the filmmakers draw a portrait of Kanpur’s tryst with power cuts with people quite often spending 15-16 hours of a day without electricity, and that too, at times when temperatures soar to as high as 45 degrees.

Maheshwari and Singh, both open and visibly comfortable before the camera, try to explain the power crisis in their own right. While Maheshwari, an upright IAS officer, feels strongly about doing something to bring electricity defaulters to book, Loha Singh, the Katiyabaaz—the master of illegal wires—puts his life at stake as he climbs up tall poles and loop katiyas over thick high-voltage transmission wires, to help people survive in the congested, simmering city of 3 million.

Maheshwari, trying to correct a gone-haywire system, sends her raid teams to track down residents who have used illegal connections to light up their homes, and impose fines on them. Singh, on the other hand, is the fearless electricity Robin Hood of Kanpur; people come to him seeking help, begging for electricity and he obliges. Later, they sing his praises and say that without Loha—the dark complexioned, short, Katiyabaaz—their shops, businesses or small entrepreneurial ventures would not have kept going.

Intense research and documentation aside, what’s most amazing is that Kakkar and Mustafa, along with the primary theme of power crisis, also capture a parallel gender and class narrative that are subtly present in the plot. Ritu Maheshwari, is not only the KESCO chief, for her subordinates and the local politician, she is also ‘a woman’. The local politician, Irfan Solanki, who later goes on to win elections banking on the electricity crisis, takes a jibe at Maheshwari at a public meeting reminding the audience that she is a woman. The visuals of a middle aged woman chairing a meeting in a room filled only with men, who nod lazily at what she says, in a small-town in UP, is pleasantly surprising. There is a class aspect too to the entire power scenario depicted in the film.  Loha Singh says that KESCO doesn’t go after the ‘big thieves’ (meaning industries with political tie-ups) but rather it troubles the poor over minor thefts. In fact, at one point in the film, people demand to know from KESCO engineers why, when a VIP visits the town, there is no power-cut.

One of the most enjoyable, yet poignant, scenes in the documentary is at a local alcohol joint where an acquaintance pokes Loha, calling him a lazy thief devoid of any self-esteem. A drunk Loha, fumes and defends himself. He, too, works very hard like others to keep the city alive.

Katiyabaaz is a refreshing experiment, of a kind which you might not get a chance to watch quite often.


This review was published in the Hindustan Times on August 25, 2014.