Movie Review: Katiyabaaz (2013)

Katiyabaaz3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The insightful documentary Katiyabaaz (international title: “Powerless“) highlights the ingenious — and often illegal — methods residents of the northern Indian city of Kanpur use to cope with chronic power shortages.

As filmmakers Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa navigate their cameras through the city streets, one thought springs to mind: this is insane. Just overhead, electrical wires crisscross in a tangle that looks like the work of caffeinated spiders. The transformers supplying current regularly catch fire, prompting well-meaning passersby to climb on top of them with buckets of water. (So you need not watch the whole film in terror, I’ll spoil that no one gets electrocuted.)

There’s a method behind the crazy mess of wires hanging above Kanpur’s streets. Power outages are routine in the city, so residents utilize short, removable wires — katiyas — to connect their homes to live wires. It’s also a convenient way to get power without paying for it.

Families needing power often call a katiyabaaz — an expert in dealing with katiyas — before they call the power company. An opinionated katiyabaaz named Loha Singh serves as the movie’s guide to black market electricity, railing against the inept power company as he shorts out one of their transformers so that he can work safely.

The city’s power company, KESCO, is headed by a woman in a no-win situation. Ritu Mukeshwari is responsible for running a company deeply in debt, and with nowhere near enough power to meet the demands of the city’s five million residents. The only obvious source for revenue is unpaid bills.

But of course, Kanpur’s problems are interconnected. Many of the residents are poor because limited electricity limits economic opportunity, therefore they can’t pay their bills. But if they don’t pay their bills, KESCO can’t invest in better equipment that would make electric service more reliable. Mukeshwari is set up to fail.

Interestingly, no one raises the prospect of help from the federal government. Kanpur’s problems are too entrenched to be dealt with internally, but apparently Delhi has no interest in resurrecting a place that was once called the “Manchester of the East.”

The city’s ability to function in such conditions is remarkable. One nighttime shot features images from an intersection crowded with pedestrians, cars, and bicyclists. All of a sudden, all the streetlights and lights from food stalls go out, leaving the cars’ headlights as the only source of illumination. It’s a wonder that no one is run over, but the bicyclists pedal on as though nothing has happened.

It’s clear in Katiyabaaz that everyone is just doing the best he or she can. Singh has capitalized  on the rare opportunity in a city short on opportunities. Mukeshwari understands public frustration with KESCO, but she can’t do her job without her customers’ help.

Mukeshwari is the most fully developed character in Katiyabaaz, a real person set up as a scapegoat. Attempts to make Singh similarly sympathetic feel staged, particularly late scenes with his mother and a dismissive uncle.

Still, the whole film is fascinating. America has its share of cities with inadequate infrastructure, yet they look nothing like Kanpur. Katiyabaaz is — pardon the pun — illuminating.

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