Cast: Loha Singh, Ritu Maheshwari and the people of Kanpur
Directors: Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa
The first time we see Loha Singh, he is hanging precariously from an electric pole, hidden behind a tangle of wires. He is doing what he does best : deftly slipping a ‘katiya’ over an electric transmission cable. The voice-over introduction tells us what a ‘katiya’ is : a ‘cut’, manually made, on wires bearing ‘bijli’. And a ‘Katiyabaaz’ is the guy who makes the cut.
Loha Singh, a wizened little fellow is a resident of Kanpur, one of UP’s filthiest, most crowded cities. Once known as the `Manchester of the East’, it is now foundering, stuck in a morass of widespread corruption and zero administration. Like many parts of the most populous state in India, it doesn’t have electricity for most of the day, leading the rich to install choking smoke-spewing generators, and the poor to depend upon the dexterity of the `katiyabaaz’.
The 80 minute documentary is like a passion play between Loha Singh, the thief who thinks of himself as a deliverer of essential goods, and the state electricity supply organization, headed by bureaucrat Ritu Maheshwari. It is the classic tussle between the beleaguered babu trying her best to cut through the decades of inefficiency and lethargy, and the people who are forced to rely upon those who devise ingenuous, and dangerous, ways to beat the system.
The subject could have easily become a turgid documentary. But the treatment makes it much more interesting, as the directors take us swiftly back and forth between conversations with Loha Singh, and Maheshwari, with a third party involvement of a thuggish `neta’ who is in the mix only to win a local election.
The hero of this enterprise is clearly Loha who is cheerfully abusive ( those with delicate sensibilities will wince at the profuse use of ‘gaalis’, which sometimes seem excessive) and morosely philosophical at the same time. The way he sees it, he is not the ‘chor’ : those in authority who deprive the poor and the needy of ‘bjili’ are the real ‘chors’, he says, and we smile. Loha is a real character, and we smile at a lot of what he does, even if it is questionable, because of how endearingly he comes across.
Some of the sequences and conversations ( especially one that Loha has with his ageing mother where he tipsily berates her as she begs him to leave this ‘khatarnaak kaam’) seem staged. You wonder about the efficacy of the crew reaching flash points so fast : at one place, an enraged mob `gheraos’ a lone official, and you are left distinctly uneasy. Will they lynch him or let him go? And in the interest of making Loha worthy of our attention, is his ‘quirkiness’, the quality of being a humourous ‘harfan maula’, underlined a little too much?
But overall the film, overlaid by a peppy Indian Ocean number that lays out the connection between the `aadhe bujhe chiraag’ that power `poora Kanpoora’, does what it sets out to do : present us with a vivid portrait of a once vibrant city in the throes of decay and darkness. I also liked that the filmmakers ( Mustafa has Kanpur roots) provide no pat solutions : well-intentioned babus get transferred, pols leapfrog to the next issue, the `katiyas’ remain. So does the `katiyabaaz’.