Katiyabaaz that captures power theft is as deliciously dramatic and entertaining as fiction

Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar and their crew stayed in Kanpur for 18 months, enduring up to 15-hour power cuts every day for their documentary on power theft Katiyabaaz, shooting exploding transformers and cables on fire from close quarters.

All that paid off when the film recently won the Best Film award in the India Gold section of the Mumbai Film Festival. Earlier this year, the film was selected to Berlin, Tribeca and over a dozen other film festivals.

The most surprising thing about this documentary is not just how relevant and informative it is but how entertaining and dramatic it gets, for a documentary feature. If you walked in without knowing it was a documentary, you just might think it was all fiction. But as they say, truth is stranger.

Katiyabaaz opens with a disturbing fact: That 1.5 billion people in the world live without electricity; 400 million of them live in India.

Deep crisis

Fahad, whose family hails from Kanpur, was familiar with the power crisis there. “On returning, I realised nothing had changed,” recalls Fahad. Power theft accounted for over 30 per cent of losses to KESCO (Kanpur Electricity Supply Company).

Theft was carried out on a daily basis by street-smart electricians who would use a wire (katiya) to supply power to those without electricity for a small sum. Katiyabaaz tells the story of a local hero called Loha Singh, who considered himself a Robinhood (by stealing power from the rich to distribute it to the economically weak).

“Originally, we wanted to tell the story from Loha’s perspective but once we met with Ritu, the chief of KESCO, who was trying to make a difference and put an end to this dangerous practice, we felt we had to tell the other side of the story as well,” Deepti Kakkar revealed during the Q&A after the screening.

The balance in reporting is simply the best part of the documentary, which chronicles the clash between its two protagonists — Loha, the thief and Ritu, the honest officer trying to clean up the mess. And there’s local politics at play as well. Everything you need for a masala film. And Katiyabaaz exploits this potential and does the subject full justice with an entertaining narrative, prompting many to ask how much of it was scripted.

“It was “scripted” after we got over 250 hours of rushes. We just spent enough time with the characters and let the camera roll. The camera does prompt them into making statements they would otherwise not say, but if you leave the camera on long enough, they forget it exists and be themselves,” Fahad explains how they captured the drama between the characters.

The film should be out in theatres in a few months.

“We are still figuring out distribution. We want a wide release of at least 100 screens because we believe it has the potential,” says Fahad.

(The writer was at the Mumbai Film Festival on invitation from the event organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, a Reliance initiative supported by the government of Maharashtra)