Katiyabaaz: Filmmakers talk about documenting Kanpur's battle for electricity

Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa's documentary Katiyabaaz is an unusual film for a number of reasons. It's a documentary about a rough-and-ready India but despite the grimness of the reality, there's a crackling joie de vivre in the people who star in the film. Katiyabaaz is also a beautiful looking film, which is a rare feat amongst Indian documentaries. Perhaps most importantly, this documentary about the terrible power situation in the industrial centre of Kanpur unfolds with all the drama and charm of a feature film. So perhaps it's fitting that Kakkar and Mustafa's crew was suspected to be the crew of Dabangg while they were shooting in Kanpur. At the heart of the film is a contest between bureaucrat Ritu Maheshwari who is trying to fix the electric supply and Loha Singh, who sets up illegal electricity connections because the state supply is so erratic. Katiyabaaz will have its Indian premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival.

Fahad Mustafa spoke to us about making Katiyabaaz.

What made you interested in the power situation in Kanpur? How did you find Loha Singh?

I was born in Kanpur, but largely grew up outside. We kept returning to Kanpur and over the course of time saw the city going from a big industrial center to a city that is crumbling apart under overpopulation and lack of infrastructure. If you are from Kanpur, you are de facto interested in its power situation. It governs your life, your moods, what you could or could not do... a regular Kanpur guy knows a lot more about power, how it is supplied and distributed than a person from any big city.

Courtesy: Facebook

A still from the film. Courtesy: Facebook

Loha came to us when we had already begun shooting the film. At that point I had been researching the film for six months and had decided to put cameras on the ground — but the character that we were going to film with, another katiyabaaz, backed out last moment. Loha was a legend in the neighborhood, having survived a transformer fire that would have killed anyone else.

Katiyabaaz is beautifully shot, whether it's the city at rest or at tense moments like the brawls in near-darkness. What did you want the film to look like and how easy/difficult was it to achieve that visual effect?

The film grew in its making. It's an extremely visual thing to begin with - the city looked and felt completely different with and without electricity. Our job was to present it in the most cinematic terms possible. From the beginning, we wanted to make a documentary for Indian audiences, not for foreign broadcast where it typically goes.

As you could imagine, this was not easy at all, and I didn't even know where to begin with but as any documentary filmmaker would tell you, things are not in your control and you are mostly trying to catch up to the shot that is playing out in front of you. The power cuts had no timing, so we had to set up cameras and wait for them to happen (they lasted for an average of four hours). Or the riots, or the transformer fires. We had to think, frame, and execute really quickly most of the time. The really extensive pre-production and research really helped here, as did the local crew who knew they way around the city. That and a lot of patience.

We came up with a technique where there would always be two or more cameras on a single event - one that is shoulder mounted and in the midst of all the chaos and confusion, and another providing a stabler, wider perspective of the same events. In the edit, we cut between these subjective and objective perspectives, giving you the visual and narrative style.

For example, we were mostly shooting in crowded areas and the logistics of setting up a 30 foot crane in the gullies of Kanpur, and making sure that people were carrying on as normal and not staring and pointing at the camera were beguiling. In a feature for a location shoot you would cordon off an area, get extras and set up the shot - but here we had to keep it real. The crew and cinematographers came up with innovative solutions - we had to find lighter and more flexible and mobile alternatives to commonly used equipment, sports filming equipment was extensively used.

There were other times when crowds of hundreds would gather to stare at us. At one point a rumor spread that we were the Dabangg crew (apparently Salman Khan was going to come to Kanpur for location shooting for a sequel) and we had to convince around 500 people to let us go about our work as usual. Everyone wanted an explanation of what we were doing, and many were justifiably scared - after all we were filming an illegal activity.

The presence of cameras and sound equipment excites people, but since we were there for nearly two years, eventually I think Kanpur got used to our motley little troupe and it became easier to shoot.

Power cuts were just as big a problem for us [while shooting Katiyabaaz]. We did not have the money to house a crew of 10-12 people in hotels in Kanpur, so we rented a bungalow and furnished it (it was cheaper!). But this left us without much power backup, save two heavy duty inverter batteries. Of course, charging equipment took priority over running fans and in 50 degrees Celsius temperatures and day-long shoots, this was a nightmare.

Would you say the power situation in Kanpur similar to that of other small towns in India or is it particularly bad?

Well, yes of course a lot of towns have similar power woes. Kanpur, though, has been a neglected town, and has power woes despite itself (despite the fact that it is an industrial town which contributes heavy revenues). The distribution of power in India, and particularly UP, is a political game - political parties that come to power apportion the limited power supply to constituencies where they have a strong base. In this game, Kanpur loses out. Given it's working class background, for the longest time it used to be a Communist and a Congress hub in a state where regional and identity parties have called the shots for the last 15 years.

You set up a contest between Ritu Maheshwari and Loha Singh, but it seems your sympathies are eventually more with Loha Singh.

We became close friends with Loha in the course of filming. Yes I personally do sympathize with Loha more — he is the product of a very specific set of circumstances, in a way an embodiment of Kanpur. His father lost his job when the mills closed down, he was taken out of school and put to work cleaning chai cups as a six year old. He grew up splicing electricity cables and carved out a territory for himself. A person of grit and integrity, much like Ritu. Except that he comes from a section in society to whom even the basic human protections to live a dignified life are not provided. Yet he has learnt to live with it and work around it while keeping his sense of selfhood intact. For me, he's a little star.

Dario Fo wrote, "We live in the muck and that is why we hold our head high", which is what I think of when I think of many of our lives in Kanpur, and Loha embodies it.

While shooting the film, did you know the story arc that you wanted to set up? Are any of the conversations — like those that Loha Singh has with his mother or his uncle at the bar — staged?

When we started shooting, we were doing 'talking head' interviews with people about how the power crisis affected the lives. We had no idea, a couple of years ago, that the film would develop this way. It's when we met and decided to film with these two characters that the narrative started taking its own shape. We were not aware that there were elections around the corner, yet they became an integral part of the narrative. We got information about the transformer fires at the last moment, chanced upon fights and riots.

What we were sure to do was to document each and every moment that was even slightly relevant to our concept, and that gave us the option of telling the story as it unfolded dramatically and cinematically.

I am not sure what you mean by staged. In both the scenes you mentioned, of course Loha and the other characters were miked in and cameras were placed in the room or in the theka. We, however, had no control over what turn the conversation would take. For example, we had no idea that the conversation between Loha and his mother would be so bitter. We had simply told him that we wanted to film him together with his mother at home. Cameras rolled on that conversation for close to seven hours, in which they opened up a lot about their lives and struggles. What you see in the two-minute scene is a distillation of those hours.

Similarly with the conversation in the theka, except this was a bigger challenge as it was crowded with drunk people who wanted to interfere. It was a heck of a job, but the crew mingled with the theka crowd, cameras with tele-lenses were placed far from Loha and Shabbu [Loha's uncle], they were told to carry on as usual. We kept recording and they kept getting drunk, and their stories and conversation became more interesting. And then that little flare up happened which we in the edit decided would provide for a suitable ending.

In both these scenes, or for that matter any scene involving the principal characters, including the meeting rooms and Ritu's home, we had to somehow make ourselves disappear and let the situation play out with no interference. Patience is the keyword here, both while shooting and in the edit.

Are there people and situations that you'd shot and couldn't accommodate in the film?

Of course, we were there for over two years. We filmed plenty of individual stories showing how the lack of electricity drains the city, like the village where the roses that they depended on for a living would no longer grow as the treatment plants for industrial waste could not run without electricity. What we really regret not having got was the heavy industrial power theft. We really tried to film the raids on industries but KESCO was not really cooperative there.

What has been the most challenging part of making Katiyabaaz?

Difficult to put a finger on it. We really struggled with finances though - especially since we were clear from the beginning that we want a film that runs in theaters. Now we just hope we could bring it there. Aside from that it was a tremendous physical effort - I was taking upto five pills a day for about two months afterwards.