By Kirk Vader

Lamp and crossed wires, From Powerless
From Powerless

There are many memorable characters in Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa’s Powerless [which premieres on Independent Lens tonight at 10pm; check local listings] but only one star, the man who generates cries throughout the streets of Kanpur: “Loha Singh, Loha Singh, fix my wire!” Kanpur, the largest city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, was once known as “The Manchester of the East” for all its active factories, but now suffers daily power outages. Nests of wires crowd a polluted sky, with clouds of black smoke chugging out of the diesel-powered generators required for the majority of the day.

Loha is a central figure in the black market for stolen electricity, and viewers will watch through fingers as he throws his ladder against a pole and picks his way through the warren of sagging cables. Where the average person might sweat over whether they’re cutting into the correct cord (is it the red or yellow wire!?), Loha works quickly with the ease of experience. Only his scarred and gnarled fingers reveal the danger.

Though we see a pair of pliers in his back pocket when Loha climbs his ladder, the wire-stripping is done with his teeth. He bites into the wire casings and spits away the ends like the tip of a cigar (he has the hockey enforcer smile to match). Loha is a filmmaker’s’ dream come true: he gives Rickey Henderson-esque third person responses and often asks himself his own questions. As he explains in this interview, after getting over fears of being jailed for his role, Loha focused on the important stuff: “I told myself that I looked handsome because otherwise I couldn’t have concentrated on my performance.”

In Powerless, Loha’s insouciance is compared to Robin Hood and Iron Man but he is perhaps closest to a hero near our American television hearts: MacGyver.  (The fictional former bomb squad tech was famous for ingeniously—or absurdly—solving complex problems with everyday materials he finds at hand.)

In the spirit of Loha Singh working around the system, here are some other real-life MacGyvers at work:

Meet Harold Laird, the clever felon who escaped a high-security prison via a lighting panel in his cell:

In Laird’s case the necessity that mothered his invention was a gang of white supremacists and their death threats. After having a fairly easy time working the lighting fixture off the wall, Laird puts cloth strips and dental floss to great use, realizing that time and friction can get him through metal bars.

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To bring us back to Loha’s milieu, here are some Indian MacGyvers at work:

Saving themselves the prohibitive cost of a construction hoist, these ingenious laborers took the rear wheel off a battered scooter and ran a rope through it. The result is a cheap way to get loads of bricks up a three-story building.

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If Powerless and the preceding videos have sufficiently enticed you to steal your own electricity, here’s a how to:

Admittedly you don’t get the more visceral pleasure of risking electrocution with live wires, but an element of MacGyver is still there. To make the instructions more exciting, you can try stripping the wires with your teeth instead of pliers. [Note: We are not endorsing the idea of you trying this at home.]

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Naturally, one wishes that Loha Singh himself might be commissioned to do a series of YouTube instructional videos. His antagonists at Kanpur Electricity Supply Company, the power utility that leaves Kanpur so often in the dark, could sponsor a series in which Loha solves common community problems: how to put out a diesel generator fire, how to maximize but not overwhelm a circuit, etc. Instead of clashes in the street, there could be virtual classes to disseminate Loha’s handyman secrets.

In many parts of India, of course, there are serious issues that go far beyond playing games with the electric company — there is the much simpler problem of the lights not being on at all. According to a recent Bloomberg article, the cost of coal-generated power is going up again and it seems Loha will still be finding plenty of work. Mirroring the end of Powerless, the lights are still out in Kanpur 16 hours a day, and it will take more than one person to solve the problem.

Read more about Powerless on Independent Lens >>