‘Katiyabaaz’ Is Not The Hero Kanpur Deserves, But The One It Needs Right Now

Posted on August 5, 2014 in Culture-Vulture

By Sohini Ghosh:

“Line se connection katwana shuru kariye toh fir main sab ke khilaaf action lun” (Start cutting the electricity connections, I’ll take strict action against everyone) emphasizes a female voice in the trailer of Katiyabaaz, a film that won the National Film Award for the Best investigative film and is set to release on 22nd August. This isn’t just your usual run-off the mill social commentary in guise of a film that preaches. It is a hard-hitting profound portrayal of a problem common all over India – power cuts and the vicious cycle it facilitates compelling the act of stealing electricity (katiya), a lucrative trade.

Set in the backdrop of Kanpur, the trailer is crisp in conveying the woes of the common people who remain enervated by the lack of one of the most basic needs. With deep-set local accents in the cast, it further makes one feel right at home. The catch, however, isn’t the woes. It is how the film has been painted in ample shades of grey with a Robin Hood like vigilante who seeks to empower the deprived. He works painstakingly to provide them with illegal connections while risking his life on electricity poles. On the other side is a female CEO of a local power company who is trying to revamp the situation and teach such reprobates a lesson to remind them of their rather misjudged actions. She, however, meets with widespread dissent majorly because of her bureaucratic ways, especially as a female trying to bring in sweeping changes in a hierarchy mostly patriarchal in nature, and secondly, because her crusade would imply many left without electricity who had been privy to illegal connections for so long. It is a classic case of taking the law in your hands when it fails to serve you, minus demarcating any particular protagonist or antagonist. It is a hard-hitting portrayal of either sides of the law and makes you think how each action affects every single being, as promises by governments are consistently broken and the common people remain ignored in the darkened alleys of 90% of the cities across India with power cuts that can last for as long as 15-16 hours. Is it too much to ask for your basic needs?

This 84 minutes long film isn’t just restricted to those 84 minutes of motion pictures on screen. It brings to fore the energy crisis that India stares so blatantly at. While privatisation and PPPs (Public Private Partnerships) continue with regards to distribution of electricity, it remains highly disproportionate so as to meet the demand and supply ratio. Also, not to be forgotten amidst the skewed resources, are the politics and dirty under-the-table shady dealings wherein inspection officers are themselves in sync with those furthering the cause of illegal connections and transmission line hooking as heavy commissions are gained from such a policy of turning a blind eye to common felony. This isn’t just a story of a particular ‘vigilante’ at work but hundreds others’ working hand-in-hand to fend for themselves.

The masterminds behind Katiyabaaz, Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar describe themselves as “part time filmmakers and part time historians.” With the film boasting of background music from the likes of Indian Ocean and Nora Kraull Rosenbaum, the background score effortlessly blends with the backdrop.

While interacting personally with one of the film makers, Ms. Deepti Kakkar, all the hurdles, challenges and efforts that went into the making of this film became much more clear to me.

When asked as to what inspired them to hit on this particular topic and how the theme was conceptualised given that it has barely been taken up to be portrayed on screen despite being a concern so common to the Indian scene, she confirmed, “It definitely was an unlikely issue to touch on and it initially started with the motive of depicting the city of Kanpur and life about it. But it gradually meandered to electricity. If one moves in Kanpur, they can see all these electricity poles heavily tangled with wires. The subject thus narrowed down to electricity and we tried to put it from the storytelling perspective. It somehow reflects how electricity is essential and how it ties every aspect of our lives – education, livelihood, industries etc.”

Upon asking how much could she connect on a personal level with this issue, she responded matter-of-factly, “It’s a topic most Indians can relate with. I belong to Ghaziabad where there could be power cuts stretching to 15-16 hours a day, often shifting to significantly longer stretches of power cuts during summers. India is a country where 400 million of the population live without electricity. This figure includes a lot many who haven’t seen electricity yet. This has been going on since several generation right upto our parents’ and somehow refuses to improve significantly. We realised it is thus an issue where we all can strike a chord and it is an extraordinary theme for a documentary. It ultimately boils down to haves and have-nots. Those who have it can afford it. The have-nots look for alternatives to fend for themselves.” 

On being asked about the kinds of challenges they faced, if there was any kind of hostility expressed by the locals while shooting or apprehensions expressed if any, she candidly added “Where do I start with the challenges? It was hard for the crew to film it physically with uncertain logistical conditions, especially the cameras and equipments’ batteries running out of charge with no electricity for the major part of the day. We were on ground for almost one and a half year and that in itself was a challenge. As for hostility, major part of the crew was born in that area so there was kind of a street cred that we were carrying, so not any particular apprehension. It allowed us to gain access right from within, from the core. Also spending a lot of time on ground allowed us to gain further access and understand the situation.”

Was there a sense of moral high-ground among those affected?, I asked, “The bijli chori has become institutionalised so it is no more about admitting if it is a wrong thing or not. Everyone knows what is going on precisely when you see 20 people on a pole playing with wires. And no one wants to admit that it’s wrong. And somewhere along the line, I agree with the fact that there are no heroes or villains. From what I see, there are just a lot of shades of grey”, she adds on a conclusive note.

On co-directing and integrating both of their ideas in Katiyabaaz, she admits to it being a challenging task. “To co-direct”, as she recalls in a moment of jest, “well we fought – sometimes I would win while sometimes him”. She goes on to add, “But on a serious note, there was division of labour laterally. It was a complementary act. For example, with him being a local, getting access to places where I might not could have been challenging otherwise, and as a woman, I was privy to reactions that he might not have. It was an act of balance. In the end, it was us playing to our strengths.”

So, were they expecting to win the National Award for The Best Investigative Film? “No, we didn’t expect it at all and it was a very pleasant surprise” she admits rather unabashedly.

What does she think about the rave reviews it has been receiving courtesy trailers and otherwise?

“We always hoped but couldn’t have anticipated the rave reviews it’s been garnering. It is indeed challenging to bring out documentaries in India. Not because of Bollywood taking precedence but because it is hard to find acceptance and no one wants to take the risk. There are documentaries that go on to be successful critically, winning awards on the international platform, being recognised globally but then those documentaries often go unnoticed by the Indian public. It’s ultimately about how they are made for the Indian audiences and then for Indian cinema.”

She talks about how hard they have worked to bring it to the notice of the public, how they used props and depicted the city, all the while wanting their work to spark a dialogue about issues as they tried to bring a strong storyline to it.

What are her and the crew’s hopes and expectations when it releases commercially in theatres on 22nd August?

“Well, I hope that whoever comes to watch it is a little bit angry, a little bit dissatisfied, a little bit hopeful, a little bit entertained and at the end of it carry a little bit of the film with them. I know that is a lot I am hoping for but I hope it ultimately sparks dialogue beyond the theatrical aspect on the energy issues that the country faces. We have been working on those lines for some time now (on the energy sector) and we hope to give all a glimpse through this mirror of Kanpur that we have tried to depict”.

While the film may spell out a situation which we are already aware of and familiar with, the honesty could be unnerving and make us question our complacency, the complacency to fight and demand for our basic need in the 21st century as part of the population of a country with a rapidly emerging economy, and demand change. Katiyabaaz definitely promises to be a thinking man’s fodder.