Fahad Mustafa vividly remembers his childhood days when he and his cousin Faizy would play a game where they would reach out from the windows of their home to tap electricity. What may sound outrageous to most urban middle-class children was a reality in Chamanganj, a quirky ghetto in Kanpur. Mustafa had spent a part of his childhood there. His life has come full circle with Katiyabaaz (Powerless), his documentary film that released on August 22, which is playing in single screen theatres of Kanpur and other small towns such as Ghaziabad, Lucknow, Katiar, Samastipur, Gorakhpur and Meerut. “A whole generation grew up inhabiting this kind of a culture.
The first trigger to make Katiyabaaz was to go back there, to talk about the stories you have always carried on the back of your mind,” says Mustafa.
This year, the film received the National Film Award for Best Investigative Film for “its cutting edge investigation into the life of a typical Indian city, use of strong characters, juxtapositions and humour to create a visual arc that delineates the haves and have-nots of power”.
The film owes its incisive observations to the academic background of its makers, Mustafa, 29, and his long-time collaborator Deepti Kakkar, 28. The two, who met while studying history at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, have also trained in social sciences, economics and politics. In 2006, they collaborated for the first time for an experimental short film called Love’s Fine Wit, which was based on a Shakespearean sonnet.
Mustafa was already harbouring interests in directing films, while Kakkar was involved in production. It was during Mustafa’s first documentary FC Chechnya, that she started “chipping in”, realising she could produce and at the same time “make creative contributions to the development of the story”.
What strengthened their partnership is their shared fascination with the reach and power of cinema. Both realised that hard numbers and facts on paper could do so much. Mustafa experienced this during his stint as a researcher with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
“Film as a medium reaches out to people across the spectrum — it’s easy to consume, it teaches people and doesn’t get buried in a file,” says Kakkar, who has done her MA in Global Studies, with a thesis in microfinance.
Kakkar, whose hometown is Ghaziabad, and Mustafa became co-directors for Katiyabaaz when they found another common ground: their small-town roots. “We are conscious about those things: differences in class and having the haves and the have-nots. Katiyabaaz is also about the powerful and the powerless, not just of Kanpur but of the entire country,” he says. Above all, both like to see themselves as storytellers. Their single-minded objective behind making Katiyabaaz was to take the story to the average Indian audience.
It may sound a little too ambitious for a documentary film, but they did everything they could to make Katiyabaaz interesting to the common Indian man. They roped in Namrata Rao, editor of several acclaimed Hindi films. As per American producer director Rob Epstein’s suggestion at Sundance, they focussed more on the electricity thief Loha Singh, “the local Robin Hood”. In the film’s posters, Singh appears as this ultra-stylised graphic novel hero, standing amid electric wires.
A couple of months ago, they screened the film for a group of projectionists. They were closest to their desired audience and they seemed to connect — clapping and laughing at the right places. But Mustafa and Kakkar were objective enough to snip the “preachy” scenes, they thought bored this audience. “It’s a story at the end of the day, if it doesn’t make a connect, then you have done a bad job,” quips Kakkar.
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