Thursday, February 27, 2014

Film Review: Katiyabaaz [Powerless] (2013)


Kanpur is an industrial centre in the north of India that used to be known as the Manchester of the East, due to its being filled with hundreds of textile factories of various sizes.  The problem with the city however is that of a standoff between the electricity company KESCO and the rest of the population.  The city has vast shortage/outage problems that have led to people stealing power by connecting extra cables called Katiyas from transformers into people’s homes.  These people are known as Katiyabaaz and are seen as electricity Robin Hoods, redirecting power from the energy giants to the small businesses and poor folk.

The main characters in the documentary of the same name (Katiyabaaz) are the new managing director of KESCO, Rita Maheshwari; the lone vigilante, Loha Singh; and later on, the politician claiming to be on the side of the people, Irfan Solanki.  All of them are trying to harness and/or share the electricity within the city, which acts as the perfect metaphor for state/citizen power.

Loha has a trick of shorting out an electrical transformer so that the company has to switch it off and try to repair it.  Meanwhile, as they do this he can use the time to hitch up more Katiyas and spread some power around as they turn it back on.  The film tries to justify his actions by intercutting clips of families being told by officials that they must pay arbitrary fines or lose power and face arrest.

The film moves between Loha, who belives that it was in fact noble KESCO employees  who taught the citizens how to steal the power and are now trying to cripple poor people into further debt; and Rita who believes that if everyone paid their fair share then everyone would ultimately benefit.  This conflict begins to spill into the streets as the power cuts get worse and the tension rises.

Due to its crippling electricity deficit, factory owners have turned to diesel generators in order to stay in production, which has made the city one of the most polluted in the world.  The workers are paid per garment instead of by the hour, and the people have to rely on stealing water as well as electricity in order to survive.

A while back, news of India’s space program infuriated certain people (warning – the link is to the Daily Expresswho claimed that they should not mess around with space until they can afford to give up receiving foreign aid.  India clearly has big problems, but at least they seem to have genuine grassroots politics where someone who seems like he is ‘one of the people’ can get elected to roars of excitement – regardless of the change that they can actually bring.

The scale of the poverty and social problems is staggering and the electrictity crisis is not going to end any time soon... so the film ends with a wonderful scene between a very drunk Loha and another man fighting over whether what Loha does is ethical or not, and it seemed like an apt ending for an ongoing issue.


  1. I just happened to see a portion of this short-film on a new-channel here in Singapore, and was struck by the realistic and gripping style in which the movie has been shot. The editing was top-notch and showed the ironies of everyday life in Kanpur.