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

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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