As far as vigilante superheroes go, Loha Singh is utterly unique. For starters he is real. He didn’t need to don mask and a cape and play a comic book inspired crusader whose heroics are aided with special effects. Every single day he endangers his life connecting wires with his bare hands so that the underprivileged bastions of Kanpur city can get access to electricity. When filmmakers Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar approached him to play himself in their documentary, he agreed even though he says, “I thought I will end up in jail for Katiyabbaz.”
Katiyabaaz is a documentary like no other. For one, it has an item number. Indie filmmakers Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar bootstrapped mightily to bring their vision to life and they are determined that the film will be seen by mainstream Bollywood audiences. The film revolves around the power crisis affecting Indian society- forty crore people live without electricity. But it is also a story with heart and soul. For that reason it is smashing through barriers of genres through Bollywood, entertaining while it educates and gives us a wonderful homegrown Robin Hood to cheer for in Loha Singh.
YourStory speaks to Fahad Mustafa about the challenges of bootstrapping a film, fusing fiction and reality to make a documentary that everyone will watch, why this particular issue is so close to his heart and the amazing reaction Katiyabaaz is getting from audiences all over the world.
What real life event sparked the idea for Katiyabaaz?
I was born in Kanpur but grew up outside the country. During that time the memories of the city stayed with me. If you have been to a small Indian city like Kanpur you see these wires dangerously crisscrossing over your head and you know there is a story going on there. Years later when I came back to India and visited it, I found hardly anything had changed. This was interesting because in between my trips, Delhi had changed drastically. But Kanpur remained in an inexplicable time warp. This was fascinating and initially the film was going to be about Kanpur. Electricity was simply a motif in the story. But during the creative process it took on a life of its own, a narrative device to which you could connect various things, and we decided to go with the flow.
How did you and Deepti Kakkar come to collaborate on this project?
Deepti and I have been together for the last ten years. She is from Ghaziabad and so closely identified with the theme of Katiyabaaz as well. We started making films together in Delhi when we were undergraduate students in St. Stephen's college. Then we moved to Vienna, worked with the UN and were involved with many other things. But we kept making films together and founded a production company called Globalistan Films. So this has always been a joint passion for the both of us.
Loha Singh is such a unique protagonist. Was he an actor to begin with or did you rope him in for this film specifically?
No he is not an actor at all. He is what he does in the movie. He is a Katiyabaaz (In Hindi katiya means a wire. A katiyabaaz is someone who steals electricity through illegal wiring). We found him and he agreed to come in front of the camera and show us what he does and why he does it. He is a very intriguing fellow.
How did you secure funding for the film?
The initial seed money came from an award that we had won. Then we collected funds from nine different countries including Netherlands, Korea, Austria, Sweden and Canada. There were film grants that were available. We got into co-production with a US based company. The budget was around 1.5 crore and we cobbled it together somehow.
What were some of the biggest restraints in terms of budget and resources and how did you overcome them?
The big problem was always the budget. We wanted to make the film in a certain way. We wanted to involve the Indian audience deep within the film- have songs, interesting narrative devices, etc. The production values themselves involve a certain amount of investment.
The problem was that nobody in India wanted to fund a documentary, even when the subject is so critical to today's society. We started the production and the budget kept growing. We kept chasing the money while we were making the film. There would be situations where we would get twenty thousand dollars from somewhere and realize that now we could rent a train. And then we had to finish shooting that within a week. So yes, the biggest challenge was balancing production with direction.
What all film festivals have you travelled with Katiyabaaz? What has the experience been like?
We started at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2013. Then we went to Tribeca, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne, Dubai and Copenhagen. In fact, I was invited to be on the jury in Copenhagen. The experience has been phenomenal. We got great responses. The first time we screened, there were eighteen hundred people in the auditorium and they gave us a standing ovation. In Germany we were compared to some of the Oscar winning films of last year. Overall we are thrilled with the reaction we have received from the world over.
How far do you think Katiyabaaz has been successful in raising the critical awareness about the issues that it highlights?
It is heart-warming to see the discussion it is generating not only among the mainstream audiences but also among policy makers. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav declared that every power corporation employee must see the film. In Maharashtra the Aurangabad Electricity Association is doing targeted screenings of the film in areas where electricity theft is the highest. There is a joint initiative between the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to do a lot of policy related screening and panel discussions of the movie around the world.
This is such a huge crisis that is affecting the country. Forty crore people are without electricity. What we discovered while making the film is that it is only during elections that people talk about this. Otherwise it is conveniently forgotten. It is about time that we, as a society and a political economy, took a step back and decided how we are going to address this issue. In terms of getting the conversation started and the dialogue going, Katiyabaaz has made a big difference.
How did you draw a line between fiction and reality while making the movie?
There is a very clear line between the two in the film. What is more relevant in terms of the narrative is truth and reality. The whole thing is real and presented as it happens. We have used fictional devices to enhance the emotive connect. Both fiction and documentary forms borrow from each other a lot, especially in recent times. We don't see a big difference between the two forms. At the end of the day, it is what the best way to tell a story is.
Do you see the success of Katiyabaaz paving the way for more ventures like this where responsible film making and entertainment go hand in hand?
Absolutely. We hope that the theatrical release of Katitabaaz creates a market for films like this and not just lose out to content because certain films are marketed at certain audiences for only "entertainment". We don't even know what that means.
How did Vikram Aditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap come on board?
We were screening for the industry in Mumbai and Vikram saw the film. He immediately jumped on board. It was amazing how someone like him committed to our film so quickly. Then we showed the film to Anurag. His father was with an electricity company at some point, so this was quite personal for him too.
So where does katiyabaaz Loha Singh go from here? Is he planning to branch out into acting with his new-found fame?
The sad reality of Loha Singh's life is that not much is going to change. He is a product of a certain set of circumstances and unless those change for him, and millions of other people in Kanpur, he is going to go through life with a lot of frustration. We reach out to him whenever we can, but we cannot take responsibility of another person's life. He was a celebrity to begin with in Kanpur, thanks to his electrical wizardry. Hopefully he can get out of that state in life someday.
Read more about Katiyabaaz and the awards and applause it is racking up here