When we go the movies, we long for a good story to unfold. It is a rare thing then to come away with the image of one unforgettable character. Katiyabaaz, an excellent documentary on the tangled power struggles in Kanpur in the middle of a deep electricity crisis, gives us one such character in the pint-sized Loha Singh. He is a katiyabaaz – an anti-hero who steals electricity to help out the power-strapped locals of the city.
You watch fascinated as he climbs up poles, bites into electrical wires with his teeth, and does a fix-up job that miraculously turns on lights, whirring fans, and factory machines. There is every chance of electrocution, but Loha Singh only laughs maniacally in the face of death. If Robin Hood comes to mind, hold that thought… Katiyabaaz, like India, is a much more complicated affair.
It is difficult to take sides in this documentary even though directors Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar present two sides of the coin. There is Ritu Maheshwari, the no-nonsense, first female CEO of the government-run KESCO, who decides that the only way to get the power company out of crippling debt is to make defaulters pay up. Chaos follows, and even rioting, when the city is plunged into darkness for days.
Riveting as it is, there is a tinge of sadness attached to the film. A scene of bickering between Loha Singh and his mother is particularly moving, even if it does feel scripted. Another scene at the end of the film, in which Loha Singh must defend what he does to a dismissive drunken uncle, is heartbreaking.
There are moments of pungent hilarity in this movie too, and the Indian Ocean-composed folk rock song Kaanpura lends Katiyabaaz an authentic texture. Throughout the film, Ritu Maheshwari and Loha Singh are pitted against each other, but you see them as two victims who despite their ambition, just can’t seem to rise above the system. And that’s the real villain here – a system that leaves you powerless.
After premiering at the Berlin Film Festival last year, and screening at Tribeca and other festivals, Katiyabaaz comes home to India. You don’t want to miss it; it’s a slice of life that will resonate with you.

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