Cast: Ritu Maheshwari, Loha Singh
Direction: Deepti Kakkar, Fahad Mustafa
Rating: **** (Four stars)
Katiya is the name Kanpur has given to the short wire that’s hooked on to the main, sarkari bijli ki taar to steal electricity. And katiyabaaz is the name the residents of Kanpur have given to electric artists who, for a price, turn up with a ladder and a plier to breathe life back into their homes, tanneries, shops, political careers.
Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa’s 84-minute long documentary follows the proud and spunky Loha Singh, a katiyabaaz, going about his business with delicious pride and proprietor-ship. It stays with him when he takes time off from his job to meet his mother, to drink with a friend, to abuse Kanpur Electricity Supply Company Limited (Kesco) officials, and to show-off his many wounds, including a permanently twisted finger. He wears them all as glorious medals.
Made in 2012, as Kanpur was getting ready for Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, Katiyabaaz wraps in the story of not just power-stealing, power-starved Kanpur, but also the precariously balanced power-equations that hinge on this. Slight change in things as they are and the system begins to short-circuit, claiming, in this case, an official who seems to be doing her job extremely well.
As the film progresses, we meet Kanpur’s residents — some of whom can’t afford electricity, some who are not just fed up but are seething with rage because of long power cuts, and others who want electricity to bypass the Kesco meter.
All of these homes are on the radar of the new head of Kesco, Ritu Maheshwari. An IAS officer, she is clear-headed and calmly takes charge of the loss-making department. She goes about admonishing officers and restoring some order in the dysfunctional bijli department. She is up against not just the residents, but also a local politician, Irfan Solanki, who sees in her earnest commitment to her job a cause to flog and claim votes. Hinged on the chori of bijli are many careers, livelihoods, including of Kesco officials.
Katiyabaaz showcases both the power and powerlessness of bureaucrats, and focuses its attention on a system that doesn’t discriminate between right and wrong. That simply sides with the one who has the most power to do as people want.
As shot and shown in Katiyabaaz, Kanpur — a forgotten relic of British Raj that’s known now mostly as an appendage to IIT, and for polluting the Ganga — is a sleepy city that lives under an intricate labyrinth of electric wires that often spark and catch fire. It’s a grotty city that’s forever struggling to get by. But also a city that’s full of idiosyncrasies, delightful colloquialism and the kind of politics that throws up shocking elections results. Kanpur, like many other parts of Uttar Pradesh, votes for “no change”.
Katiyabaaz is an intelligent film that shines dazzling light on a fascinating sliver of a city’s culture. But it’s also inelegant at times. Though director Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa have a firm grip on the layered story they wants to tell — of a city of macho men versus one quiet but steadfast lady officer, of a city that wants electricity but won’t pay for it — they aren’t very skilled with the camera. They often uses journalistic interview format and some of the scenes in homes are very obviously re-enacted.
Despite this, Katiyabaaz is a funny, moving and very well-researched documentary that’s definitely worth watch. It’s also deeply reassuring. As the wires of bureaucracy cross with political live-wires, a bulb goes off — Ritu Maheshwari. But that we have such officers gives us some hope.