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The first character we meet in Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar’s film, “Powerless,” is not a person at all – it’s a menacing tangle of wires, looming over the gritty northern Indian city of Kanpur.
The documentary, which is showing at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this week, is a jarring glimpse at India’s rampant energy crisis through one town: Kanpur and its more than 3 million residents, at least 400,000 of whom are without electricity.
The under-served don’t live in the dark. Instead, they rely on an electrical maverick, Loha Singh, to siphon power from legal users, much to the dismay of Ritu Maheshwari, the first female managing director of the local power company. As the documentary’s chief protagonists, Mr. Singh and Ms. Maheshwari represent two sides of what is, quite literally, a futile power struggle.
Mr. Singh regularly risks life and limb — in one scene, he proudly displays a crooked index finger, the result of a power theft gone awry — while residing in the city’s shadows.
“The first time I met Loha, he took me to a transformer, rearranged a few wires and I watched it blow up,” confessed Mr. Mustafa, 28, who lived in Kanpur as a child. “But he just slinked away. He had this fabulous ability to disappear.”
Ms. Maheshwari, a seemingly scrupulous public figure, navigates a labyrinthine bureaucracy, riddled with inefficiencies, before unleashing a battalion of sluggish bill-collectors to seek out the city’s power criminals.
“It’s not easy to be someone who’s supplying utilities in India,” said Ms. Kakkar, 27. “Nobody asks them what their problems are, there’s just a lot of finger-pointing.”
Determined to craft a narrative from two opposing perspectives, Mr. Mustafa and Ms. Kakkar sifted through hundreds of hours of footage, some of which was captured during 15-hour power cuts and 47-degree heat waves.
“The biggest challenge was charging our equipment,” Ms. Kakkar said. “We’d have ice packs on our camera lenses” to keep them from overheating. Watching Powerless, it’s easy to think the directors may have resorted to filming on their cellphones, evident from a handful of fuzzier shots that made the final cut.
“It would have been less challenging to go to an exotic village where there was no electricity whatsoever,” Ms. Kakkar said. “But we consciously went to an industrial, semi-urban place that audiences could relate to instead of watching something that felt very alien to them.”
While Powerless premiered at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year (one of five Indian films represented), the directors have yet to bring the film to their home country, citing a lack of Indian platforms for documentary films.
“We’re on a mission to make documentary films more accessible to the ‘masses’ — a funny word we use in political parlance — so that it can be screened beyond metropolitan centers like New Delhi and Mumbai and people can actually see their plight reflected,” Mr. Mustafa said. “But the state doesn’t really support this style of film-making.”
When asked whether they still keep in touch with the film’s main characters, the directors said that Ms. Maheshwari was transferred to Shahjahanpur, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, courtesy of a local politician who may have been threatened by her no-nonsense business practices.
Mr. Singh was recently arrested, but eventually bailed out by Mr. Mustafa’s cousin, a Kanpur resident.
“Loha comes from a stratum of society where basic human rights are forgotten,” admitted Mr. Mustafa. “And he knows that all too well.”
By AARTI VIRANI