With last year’s Superman of Malegaon and now Katiyabaaz, two things are confirmed – that India is capable of producing some seriously high quality cinematic docus, and that the era of India being a hub of brainless masala movies is over.
Katiyabaaz, a documentary that plays out like a Dibakar Bannerjee movie tells in its own unique way the story of the power crisis in Kanpur. Veering between real and reel, the film is a comedy, an expose, a satire, a vigilante tale, an unapologetic bit of manipulation and one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. It is required viewing not only for those looking for a ‘relevant’ and ‘important’ bit of desi cinema but also for those seeking an entertaining time at the movies.
The film follows Loha Singh, a dark knight-esque figure in Kanpur who fiddles with transformers and reroutes power cables illegally to power the homes of the destitute and give the finger to the tyranny of the UP government. We travel with Loha across the power ravaged city as he hurls a barrage of subversive, amusingly scathing observational statements. Loha’s footage is intercut with footage of Ritu Maheshwari, the MD of Kanpur’s electricity supply company who struggles to find a middle ground between beurocracy and adhocracy. There’s a method to this – as Ritu in her first world of luxury exudes helplessness in the face of practicality, Loha becomes a vigilante figure as the story spirals into scripted beats. The contrast between Loha’s acerbic commentary and the MD’s practical worldview makes Katiyabaaz and its documentary style provocative and enormous fun.
Directors Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa had the task of selling the film to the Indian audience which rarely watches documentaries, and they somehow managed to hit the sweet spot here. Katiyabaaz might be a docu but is more hilarious, insightful and gorgeous than a feature film. And thanks to Namrata Rao and Maria Eliaz’s editing the film is an energetic, chaotic look at a world that is foreign to many of us.
Most documentaries have scripted segments and it’s only a matter of how well the filmmakers conceal them. Katiyabaaz has quite a few staged scenes, including shots taken with a crane. But even if the entire documentary is a giant put-on it doesn’t matter, because Katiyabaaz does so many thing right. For starters it talks about a major political issue in the most politically volatile Indian state and it does it in a quirky, entertaining style. The film isn’t the final word on the power struggle in UP but it does provide insight into an issue with a very interesting protagonist. You might stay in a town where load shedding is the norm, but how many of you know who reroutes cables for a living and what the people in power are actually doing about it?
Moreover Katiyabaaz has some truly incredible footage and moments, like when a mini riot breaks out when a transformer blows out and the city is plunged into darkness. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frantically paced and beautifully scored with Indian Ocean’s music and Varun Grover’s lyrics. The filmmakers’ electric style of rebellion transcends from the protagonist to the film in a scene where Loha has a drunk profane philosophical argument with his uncle - if that scene was scripted it is brilliant, and if it wasn’t it is still endlessly fascinating and absolutely unforgettable.
(First published in DNA)