Movie review: ‘Katiyabaaz’ transforms banal reality into gripping tale

August 21, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

In one of the many tragicomic moments in “Katiyabaaz” (Powerless), a woman earnestly remembers her gods in the darkness, mumbling something that roughly translates to “Dear Almighty, please bring back the light”. ‘Light’ here means electricity.

katiyaaHer prayer sounds absurd but her misery is real. As a resident of Kanpur, the invocation is probably made after several hours without electricity or even clean water in the sweltering and often lethal heat of a north Indian summer.

The award-winning documentary by Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar takes a compelling look at the problem of chronic power outages that the industrial city of Kanpur has suffered for decades. The film-makers focus their lens on Loha Singh and Ritu Maheshwari, two unusual but highly engaging heroes.

Singh, a diminutive man with uneven, betel-stained teeth, steals electricity for a living and uses a heavy dose of profanities in Hindi. Maheshwari is a plump bureaucrat tasked with turning around KESCO – a power distribution company beset by a paucity of funds, graft, inefficiency and a bad public image.

Worlds apart in their material circumstances and locked in a battle with each other, the underlying parallels between the two are uncanny. They are willing to take chances and risk public ire because both are convinced they are fighting for a just cause. Both work hard and take pride in what they do for a living but are aware that their professions are harming their personal lives. Both appear to be powerful but are actually easily dispensable.

katiya“Katiyabaaz” is remarkably balanced; it highlights everyone’s complicity and does not let anyone off the hook. The ‘suffering’ public has run up unpaid bills of millions of rupees. While a few low-level KESCO officials get unfairly thrashed by mobs, some people on the company’s payroll allegedly teach people like Loha Singh how to steal electricity. Politicians, whom people rely on for leadership and intelligent solutions, end up inflaming passions for personal gain.

The narrative flows well, effectively building tension and leading to an interesting climax. Also, the documentary conveys much through humour and often without having to spell things out. The opening song, ‘Kanpoora’, features singer Rahul Ram trying to perform in a Kanpur neighbourhood even as erratic power supply leaves him beleaguered and drenched in sweat. The sight of factories billowing smoke in a city with little or no electricity speaks volumes of its dependence on illegal power supply.

katiyabaazI felt the only problem with “Katiyabaaz” is that many of its characters speak a hard-to-interpret local Hindi dialect. Loha Singh and others have such heavy accents that even a Hindi-speaking audience may have to rely on subtitles to understand them.

Overall, “Katiyabaaz” takes an objective look at an enormous problem, and transforms the mundane, all-too-familiar reality of India’s power crisis into a gripping tale of Indian ingenuity and battle for survival. The movie releases on Friday; watch it if stark reality on celluloid does not leave you feeling bored, short-changed or overwhelmed.

(Follow Anupriya on Twitter @anupriyakumar; This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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