Loha Singh, in Powerless

Outlaw electrician Loha Singh, in Powerless

Powerless is the story of Kanpur, an industrial city in northern India, crumbling under the lack of infrastructure. Filmmaker Fahad Mustafa was born in Kanpur, and partnered with filmmaker Deepti Kakkar, found an opportunity to return to the city of his birth for a fascinating story.  “During research we realized the conflict over electricity in the city seemed to talk volumes about the city’s history, the depravity of its public life, and the deep class divides that characterize it,” he told us. “And then we met Loha Singh, the point from where the film as it is really took off.” Loha is the “Robin Hood of electricity” who is revered by some locals but vilified by frustrated power company officials. Powerless premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, Nov 3 at 10pm [check local listings for date and time in your area], and the filmmakers chatted with us via e-mail about what brought them to tell this story.

Fahad, you’ve lived all over, but what were your own experiences with electricity growing up in India and elsewhere?

Powerless Filmmaker Fahad Mustafa

Powerless filmmaker Fahad Mustafa

I left India with my parents when I was about eight years old. In those times, power cuts were a problem but neither the length of the cuts nor electricity theft were as rampant as now. I remember that we had to tally the time when electricity and water will be available together. Also I remember how there was a stillness in the air when the power was cut, and the joy we felt when it came back, as though our lives had been renewed.

Things really got worse in the coming years, and I saw a lot of this on visits in summer vacations when we had to spend long hours without electricity in heat of more than 45 degrees. Growing up in the middle east me and by sister had become so accustomed to air conditioning that this seemed unbearable.

Then there were stories of businesses of relatives and family friends shutting down in Kanpur over electricity, as well as those of riots breaking out in the neighbourhood when people attacked the electricity sub-station in long power cuts. I remember my cousin who was all of 10 years old once leaning out of the window to attach a katiya during an extended power-cut. As children, my sister and I seemed to occupy two worlds — of comfort and abundance abroad, and of surreality and deprivation at home in Kanpur.

What inspired you to move from writing about energy and development in India to making films?

Powerless filmmaker Deepti Kakkar

Powerless filmmaker Deepti Kakkar

Deepti and I were both engaged with public policy (Deepti is in fact pursuing a degree in Public Policy at Columbia University in New York). I was working with an international watchdog on torture when I started making FC Chechnya, our first feature-length documentary. I think it came from the desire to translate a lot of what we read on paper to the screen. Also I was distinctly aware that a lot of the conversations that we would have in conference rooms during international conferences only reflected a tiny portion of the reality, and not the chaotic, desperate whole, and wanted to show more of that. That’s how FC Chechnya started and that’s how we jumped into Powerless.

What impact do you hope this film will have? What do you think American audiences can take from this film?

We hope that the film brings awareness to the crippling energy poverty that affects over a billion people around the globe. In the western world, electricity is often taken for granted, available at the flick of a switch. But across the world access to electricity is fraught with socio-economic conflict. We hope people realize that and there is greater awareness for the need of a sustainable access to electricity for everyone.

I think it would be good if we could realize that electricity does not simply come from the flick of a switch and that there are many places in the world like Kanpur where lack of electricity breeds violent conflict in which lives and livelihoods are at stake. We will all do well to remember to use our resources, natural and otherwise, carefully to ensure a sustainable future.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

The access to the characters; it took us 6 months of working with the “Katiyabaaz” (electricity thieves) of Kanpur to be able to shoot freely. At the same time, we had to work very hard to get permissions to shoot with the electricity utility and Ritu, who is a bureaucrat. This is one-of-its-kind access to the workings of the Indian bureaucracy.

Close up of Loha attempting to fix  wiring

For both of you, have you seen any changes in the way electricity is handled in both Kanpur and other places in India since making your film, or is there still a long way to go?

It’s a devilishly complicated problem with no easy solution. The solution lies as much in governance, corporate responsibility, citizen participation and creating an inclusive society than simple arithmatics of demand and supply. We have only seen the situation become worse in the months since we completed Powerless. There is a long, long way to go.

Why doesn’t India’s national government step in or do they still prefer to let local jurisdictions solve their energy issues?

The national government does advise and try and implement policies and projects that would ensure more production of electricity. However, the distribution is the responsibility of the state executives, in this case the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). The state power distribution companies are on the verge of bankruptcy and do not have the resources to buy extra power of the national grid, nor revive existing infrastructure and far from creating new one. Hence a vicious circle of energy poverty that is drowning out millions of people.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in Powerless, especially the two main characters?

We were always very open with what we are trying to do. The subjects were aware that we are shooting both sides of the conflict, and were always willing to open up about their viewpoints once we told them the opposing one. Aside from that we spent a lot of time in Kanpur, hence we got to know the people there rather well. Fahad was born in Kanpur, and his family connections also got us some credibility. What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut? We would have liked to include more about how the city itself has changed over the years, but since the story became a cop and robber tale between Loha and Ritu there was little scope of expanding on that.

Overhead wires in Kanpur, India

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you. [Spoiler Alert:]

It’s the final scene of the film where Loha is drinking with his uncle, who criticizes him for being a thief. Throughout the film Loha is projecting himself to be a messiah of the masses, the people’s hero, but here he is at his most vulnerable. Also, since Loha and I are of the same age and are born in the same neighbourhood, there is a strong connection.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

You could have a whole crew marching on good biryani.

What projects are you working on next?

There is a lot in the pipeline, but at the moment we may be looking at a film on water.

Read more about Powerless on Independent Lens >>