Monday, May 20, 2013

Empowering India's Powerless Through Electricity

TriBeCa Film Festival

Empowering India's Powerless Through Electricity

Loha Sing, a Katiyabaaz (a master of electricity theft), does his thing in Kanpur

Kanpur, India was once heralded as the "Manchester of the East," but this once-thriving metropolis has been experiencing a steady decline with the closing of textile mills and numerous businesses. The main reason there is little chance of reversing this disastrous trend, is that, as Powerless, a new documentary from India, makes clear, much of the city is without electricity for approximately fifteen hours a day.  Factories can't open, people can't pump water, kids can't study. In this engrossing, enLIGHTening film by Fahad Mustafa (who was born in Kanpur) and Deepti Kakkar, we see the continuous (sometimes violent) battle between the poor who can't pay exorbitant electricity bills and the power company KESCO, which doesn't seem to care or understand that many can't pay the bills because there are no jobs in area due to the lack of energy.  The powerless poor are represented in the film by Loha Singh, who climbs up utility poles and connects wires at the risk of his life so his neighborhood can get free electricity, and Ritu Maheshwari, the new, autocratic head of KESCO, who initiates a crackdown on those not paying for power and orders her staff to dismantle the illegal connections.. The following is an interview I did at the recent TriBeCa Film Festival with Mustafa and Kakkar about their unsettling and important cautionary tale.
Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa Photo: DP

Danny Peary: The title of your movie obviously has two meanings.  The lack of electrical power and the lack of power by the frustrated people to get the government to rectify the problem.
Fahad Mustafa: It is a double entendre, maybe a triple one.  There’s no electricity in town, so it’s powerless in that regard.  Also our main character, Loha Singh, is sort of powerless to deal with the situation.  For that matter, everyone in the city and state is powerless to redeem the situation. It’s also a situation that’s very debilitating at the end of the day, when you try hard and try harder and there’s nothing that comes out of it. It’s a dystopic universe that the city inhabits.  And that in my eyes explains the meaning.  There’s a separate title in India. Katiyabaaz. It’s a title that speaks of the sport of electricity stealing.
DP: You’re from Kanpur, so what's happening must break your heart.
FM: It does, it does. When I was growing up in Kanpur, it was a big textile manufacturing base but then the textile mills would close down and my relatives would be out of jobs.  It’s a huge industrial city, built by the British back in the day, and it continues falling apart for the lack of some very basic infrastructure.
Deepti Kakkar: When we started out, this was going to be a film about the people of Kanpur and livelihood issues.  That’s how it was born, and that’s how we wrote it. But  as we spent more time there and saw what is happening, it became increasingly obvious that there was a deeper story to tell. That’s when the electricity aspect came in.
DP: Certainly in Kanpur but in other places in India, is this taken for granted, that today is another day we’re going to suffer without electricity?
DK: It’s certainly something that people anticipate.  In the summer as it get hotter, it gets worse. But that doesn’t mean that they take it for granted. There’s a lot of anger and a lot of violence every year associated with the crisis. I was fortunate not to see the worst of it, but three years before we began filming they actually burned alive an electricity official who had come to collect money from those who were stealing electricity illegally. So it’s certainly not something people take lying down. But they do anticipate it every year.
FM: Sadly, it’s all too common a problem. There are 400 million people in India that live without electricity. It’s disempowering to the effect that you cannot do much over there. If you don’t have electricity you can’t run your factories, you can’t produce goods, you cant draw water from the well, you can’t switch on the TV and find out about the world. Children don’t have light to study by.
DK: Women and children are really the worst impacted. It’s not something we dwell on in the film, but it’s really the people that stay home and can’t move around freely outside that are the worst impacted.
DP: In the film's production notes you talk about why you think this film has universal appeal.  I agree because here in America some cities are failing and small towns are disappearing because of the depressed economy.
DK: We very consciously wanted to go to a city, and the city of Kanpur, rather than go to a village.  This is a story about a global issue, and it affects a billion and a half people worldwide. I think that’s the point of engagement for everyone. Secondly, this issue is not discussed in mainstream politics at the moment in India. Even my own parents–and I come from a very middle-class family--said, "What’s wrong with you? Who’s going to want to watch this? Lights going out every day, there’s no story in that." But there’s a lot to talk about, I think. I think the film is as much about politics and governance as it is about electricity and the way forward.
FM: And I think that’s what makes it’s interesting for all audiences. The supply of electricity at the end of the day is about government and how it is handled.  And places where the government try hard enough to ensure that basic needs of the modern world are provided to the people are going to fall off the map, just like Kanpur.
DP: Ritu Maheshwari, who is in charge of electric power, considers herself a progressive, almost.a reformer. But the people she serves think she is an insensitive bureaucrat who is sending them back to the, literally, Dark Ages.

FM: Ritu is a very fascinating person. She’s very young. She is a person of great integrity. She just joined the government services and I will venture to say that at the time that she joined she was very na├»ve, thinking that she could grapple with all of those things. She has a clear idea of what she wants to do and she knows the reality of it, and makes very commendable effort into trying to make a difference to the city of Kanpur.  But at the end of the day, what stopped her and caused her to bash her head against a wall, was when she came up against this huge politics structure.  The people stood up against it and said, "No, we do not want to pay for electricity." I think nobody recognized her efforts to make a difference.
Ritu Maheshwari

DP: Do you see her as the villain of this piece?

FM: Not at all.

DK: Certainly not. We were very lucky in fact that we were there on the ground for the entire duration that Ritu was in Kanpur. So we saw her character arc, in story-telling terms. She came in as the girl who was going to make a difference, and saw the challenge, and she was ready to go all guns blazing. But at the end of the day, she was really jaded by the politics behind her office. It's definitely a side of the story that we wanted to tell with as much nuance and balance as Loha’s side. I’ll be honest, when we started out Loha was our guy, but then we decided that the government’s side of the story was as relevant. And even though still there’s a conflict, a sheriff-and-robber story, Loha and Ritu are really fighting against the same thing.

FM: And who’s the villain? Is it the politician who kicks her out of the town? Is it the people of Kanpur who do not want to pay the bills? Is it the state that is not producing enough electricity? I think specifically in documentary you have to look beyond these villain-hero situations.

DP: I'd say the is villain complacency, that nobody cares.  Or, if they do care, the problem is too overwhelming to tackle.  

FM: It is the biggest problem that nobody cares enough.

DK: I think overwhelming is the right word to use.  At Q&As people ask, "What’s the solution, guys?"  I say, "The situation is so much bigger than you and I, and the film, and Ritu and Loha. It plays out in India on a national level. There’s investment in nuclear missiles but there’s no investment in education and energy."

FM: That’s precisely what I say, that people don’t care enough. The state has to invest and guarantee access to energy to their populace--so that you could develop, you could get a place. There’s so much to offer.  India is the next super-power, a great nation with 8% GDP growth, but what is it that the people who are living there actually get from that?

DP: What if India becomes embarrassed by this issue on the world stage? Because they’re trying to present themselves a major power.

DK: That’s not the intention of our film. I think the idea was to start a conversation. It’s a again something that we’re confronted with often: "Why are you guys showing this image of the country? What will you achieve from it?" Our intention was to start a dialogue about something that needs to be talked about more, and I hope it’s accepted in that spirit.

DP: From a filmmaker’s standpoint, I would think the biggest discussion you made when editing the film was when to show Ritu at home with her family. That was probably a big decision.  Should we put her at the beginning and make her more sympathetic or should you wait till the end?

FM: It’s really cool that you catch on to that. There was a big discussion at that point. We decided that it’s much more poignant toward the end of the story, when you see her really trying to hold up this image in the face of protest and people pointing fingers at her.  And  then she comes home and you see what her life has been like.

DP: We see that she’s a nice mother, her kids love her.

FM: And the fact that she’s been transferred so many times.

DP: That scene changes our perception of a character. It works in either place, but differently. Okay, Loha. He was your guy and then he doesn’t end up a victor in any way. He's sort of a fallen figure.

FM: He's very representative of the people in Kanpur. He’s a very gritty person who will  do whatever it takes to make things work, and that’s so true of the character of the city and the people who live there, in the highest revenue-generating city in the state where it's located.. Loha's about 4 feet tall, and he projects himself to be this giant of a person.

DP: Well, what he does is dangerous.

DK: He really is a daredevil, and there’s no small measure of pride that he has in his work. He’s also a legend in the area because he once survived a major transformer fire.  After twenty minutes, he walked out alive.  So people believe that he has the hand of God on him. He’s very aware of that reputation that he carries around and really lives life on his own terms.

DP: But as the film progresses, I think he feels pushed aside and underappreciated. Is that accurate?

DK: I think the idea was to break down the projection that he has of himself. You see him talking very highly of his work and very highly of himself.  There’s a lot of praise. It’s sort of tragicomic and at the end of the day we wanted to come down to what his reality is like, and to be very honest. He lives in one room with eight other family members and often sleeps on the street--which is why he holds his head up high.

DP: But if a narrative movie were made about him, I'm sure it would be played by a dashing-looking hero. You could build a case for him being a hero.

DK: He’s a big Amitabh Bachchan fan.

FM: He really likes him during his angry-young-man phase in Indian cinema. In the 1970s, Amitabh Bachchan portrayed someone who’s really angry with the social issues of the day and how the society and state are.  I think Loha modeled himself on him, because that’s what he watches. He doesn’t watch any of the new, escapist Bollywood films about escaping to vacations in Switzerland and couples romancing on beaches. The common man in India doesn't relate.

DP: I want to ask you about the third major figure, Irfan, who is the leader of the people opposing Ritu.  You show them have a confrontation in the movie. Then he when he reports back to the people what happened to the meeting, he makes it seem like she’s the worst person ever and wouldn’t listen to anything he said. He was exaggerating.

FM: He went to her office to advocate that some people should not have to pay their electricity bills. Then he started campaigning against her. And eventually he got her removed. He was campaigning for the elections. He’s a very good politician.

DP: But in this film, politicians are not regarded with much respect.

DK: In India, they’re not.

FM: He’s a very good politician in terms that he’s very connected to his base. He knows what people are looking for.

DP: Is he trustworthy?

FM: We would not comment on that. We did have an interview with him in which he talked about what happened between him and Ritu. I think the reason that we decided not to include it was with respect to that--it was really a battle of egos. So what we did include in the film was how often political considerations get in the way of real change, which is why Ritu had to leave her position. That’s as much as we wanted to say.

DK: We decided not to keep the interview in the film because we thought we gave too much space to his character.  We wanted Ritu and Loha as our main characters. Irfan’s an interesting character, he’s also relevant to the story, but I think the two driving forces are sufficient.

DP:. What is the message you want people to take away? What do you want people to remember when they're leaving the theater?

FM: We want them to remember that there’s this city that was a once a great industrial city and it's now without electricity and is falling apart. In India, if we’re not careful, that may be the fate of thousands of cities. It’s beyond just energy, it’s really a question of politics and government, and how energy is produced and supplied.

DP: Which affects climate change and everything. You can pull back from that one city and it’s already spreading.

FM: Of course. Take Kanpur and imagine it a thousand times over in India, ten thousand times over across the world. Imagine it happening to thousands of cities. It wasn’t the intention to make a film about a tragic situation. We’ve been very conscious of including the dark humor that surrounding this.

DK: It’s about hope, honestly.

DP: Has being at TriBeCa been a good experience?

DK: It’s really special for us, to be in New York.

FM: Oh, it’s a pleasure. This is our second screening; we premiered at Berlin and then we came to New York.  It’s very different but we feeling that audiences here are as interested.

DK: I think they’re much more spunky than in Berlin. In Berlin they’re way more academic.

FM: That is something that we've appreciated.  But as much as an honor it is for us to be here at
TriBeCa, the real test is seeing if people in India understand and appreciate it and if it brings some change. There aren't many documentaries shown there, but our aim as filmmakers is to bring the documentary into the mainstream in India.

electric wires and clotheslines, lifelines for the poor in Kanpur

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