Katiyabaaz review: Small-town India at its electric, despairing best

Deepanjana Pal

Aug,22 2014 11:04 40 IST

The word 'loadshedding' doesn't actually exist in English, but 'load' and 'shedding' jammed together have created one of those Indian words that everyone in the country knows, particularly if you live in a big town like Kanpur where electricity is a shifty, inconstant thing.

Despite being an industrial centre, Kanpur's power supply is fraught with problems. As a result, residents and factories go for hours — sometimes upto 15 hours a day — without electricity. In situations like this, the man you need is the katiyabaaz, or the electricity thief.

Courtesy: Facebook

Courtesy: Facebook

Loha Singh is a little guy who strides around Kanpur like an aristocrat much of the time. He doesn't have a job and he isn't rich, but he is a bit of a hero because armed with his wires, he can bring electricity into your home whether or not you have an official connection.

This makes him a criminal and an enemy of the city's electric supply corporation, headed up by a well-meaning bureaucrat, Ritu Maheshwari. It's a no-win situation. Maheshwari has inherited a problem that is enormously complicated and impossible to solve in a flash. Add to that the disgruntled Kanpur residents as well as political parties that are more than ready to use the fact that there's a woman in charge to the advantage of their campaign.

The people in power change, but the power situation doesn't. People like Loha Singh remain the low-level fixers who are in the gravest danger, both because of the risks involved in handling live wires and the criminality of their actions. Yet for Loha Singh and the millions of common people who are plunged into uncomfortable darkness by loadshedding, stealing electricity is the only way.

Directors Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa spent three years working on Katiyabaaz, researching the city's power situation and meeting the people who are affected by it. Although their documentary gives a fair amount of time to Maheshwari, watching her trying to make her team more effective and improve the situation, their sympathies are quite obviously with Loha Singh. Ultimately, Singh emerges as a rather tragic Robin Hood — a man who risks his life stealing electricity but still remains at the bottom of the social heap, with little more than drunken rants to comfort him.

Katiyabaaz is a beautifully-shot documentary that tells Kanpur's story with great sensitivity and wit. The years spent on the project have allowed the directors to film some fantastic sequences, like the violence that erupts on the streets one night when a large part of the city loses electricity. The rage and frustration of the common man bursts through in wildly-thrown punches and vicious abuse. It's a frightening, tense scene, made all the more so by the knowledge that nothing is going to get better. The electric supply board is weighed down by past mistakes and present inertia. The political establishment would rather keep things the way they are because it gives them a topic to lecture on during campaigns.

There isn't much of a narrative arc to the documentary, but Kakkar and Mustafa make up for this by showing us the many ways that electricity, and the lack of it, impact the lives of people in Kanpur. Loha Singh's story — he begins and ends in the same place, scarred by electricity and incapable of doing anything other than what he does because he's illiterate and poor. The political angle to Kanpur's power situation isn't explored in as much depth and you can't help wondering whether Ritu Maheshwari, straitjacketed by the constraints of a government position and misogynist politicians and co-workers, didn't deserved a little more of the filmmakers' sympathy.

By the end of Katiyabaaz, like the audience, Maheshwari is able to escape Kanpur, albeit with scratches and scars. Loha Singh, however, has nowhere to go but up a pole and close to the high voltage wires. It's his sad face, as he slumps in a sad, alcoholic stupor in a Kanpuri dive, that stays with you along with the image of his fingers that have been misshapen forever by zaps of electricity. This is small town India at its chaotic, energetic and despairing best.