A documentary puts the power crisis in Kanpur on the grid
The fact that Powerless has been programmed in the Competition section at the forthcoming Mumbai Film Festival (17-24 October) rather than the non-fiction The Real Reel slot tells you a great deal about the documentary.
The Competition section is usually for feature films, so the presence of Powerless might seem unusual—or not, when you consider its narrative approach. Directed by Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar, Powerless is a picaresque tale of electricity theft in Kanpur, one of the industrial growth engines of Uttar Pradesh and depicted in a film as a slightly sad place in which hundreds of thousands of disgruntled residents live beneath a web of criss-crossing wires. Electricity is in such short supply that the power thief or katiyabaaz—also the documentary’s Hindi title—is a man of tremendous importance for his ability to light up homes, offices and factories by tapping into the grid.
Against a backdrop of ordinary people forced by circumstance to become law-breakers, you have an honest protagonist (an Indian Administrative Service officer who heads the local electricity board), an assortment of villains (interfering politicians), an underdog (Loha, a colourful katiyabaaz), atmospheric visuals, especially in the low-light sequences (cinematography is by Mustafa, Maria Trieb-Eliaz and Amith Surendran) and background tracks composed by Indian Ocean band members Amit Kilam and Rahul Ram and written by Varun Grover.
The idea was to make a documentary that could hold its own against feature films in cinemas, say Kakkar and Mustafa in separate telephone interviews. “For us, the ethic was always that we wanted the film to go to cinemas," says Kakkar, who is studying Public Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, US. “In a documentary, we have a commitment to the truth, but we also wanted to do it cinematically and have a narrative that was engaging and entertaining." The absence of hand-held shots is another indicator of the documentary’s ambitions. “We didn’t use hand-held footage except when it was for situations they didn’t have access to," says 29-year-old Mustafa, who has previously directed the documentary FC Chechnya, about Chechen asylum seekers in Austria. “We wanted something that people would not dismiss as a documentary."
There were liberties taken when editors Namrata Rao and Maria Trieb-Eliaz started sifting through the footage. “We took some liberties in the edit—you can see the residue, lots of emotions flying around that have been patched together," says 27-year-old Kakkar. A tense conversation between Loha and his mother, in which she exhorts him to leave his job, actually unfolded over 8 hours but appears as though it has taken place in far less time.
The barrier between documentaries and feature films has always been porous. If documentaries occasionally resort to fictional props such as unreliable narrators, reconstruction and editing effects, features have been drawn to the documentary’s ability to capture the drama of real life. Documentary watchers won’t find any startling new ways of overlapping the two forms in Powerless, but the dexterously assembled 80-minute narrative has other pluses.
Powerless moves smoothly from an introduction of the dramatis personae to the resulting seriocomic conflict caused by their collision to an open-ended conclusion that becomes a larger statement about Kanpur itself. Since the film-makers spent over 18 months in Kanpur, assembling over 250 hours of footage, they were able to capture key developments in the crisis. The film-makers suggest that the city’s residents lack power in every which way—they are unable to pressurize the government into generating more electricity to tackle the shortage, and pay the price for political chicanery aimed at protecting electoral prospects. Loha won’t be out of place in the movies of Anurag Kashyap and Tigmanshu Dhulia, while the electricity board chief, Ritu Maheshwari, generates ample empathy as she tries to impose order on an anarchic situation.
The film took on its tone after Loha came into the picture, says Mustafa, but the power thief owes his inclusion to luck. “We met a few katiyabaazs before Loha, and we even shot with one of them for four months, but he backed out," Kakkar says. “Loha saved us from what could have been a disastrous shoot."
Powerless arrives in India after travelling to several prestigious film festivals, including Berlin (where it premiered), Tribeca and IDFA. The film-makers will also travel to Mumbai and meet distributors—at least one leading Hindi movie studio is interested. “We tried to juice each scene," Mustafa says. “It’s a lived crisis for many of us, and we want it to resonate and be watched."
Powerless will be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival. For schedule and details, visit www.mumbaifilmfest.com