Powerless: Berlin Review

Powerless H
Keep the lights on.

Documentary filmmakers Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar explore the power struggle threatening to tear India apart.

BERLIN -- For most people, flicking on a light switch is a mindless daily routine. But for the characters featured in Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar’s gritty street documentary Powerless it’s more akin to class warfare, and one that risks boiling over into a nationwide conflict. Set in the midsize Indian city of Kanpur -- once known as the “Manchester of the East” and now rife with poverty and unemployment -- this rough-and-tumble exposé gets by more on its eye-opening footage than its chaotic design and should see additional fest berths, plus some pubcaster pickups, following a premiere in the Berlinale Forum.

As the opening titles indicate, of Kanpur’s 3 million-plus population, at least 400,000 are without viable electricity. As an alternative, they resort to katiyas – crude wire tappings that drain power from legal users and run it into the homes of the underserved.

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One of the practice’s chief proponents is Loha Singh, a pint-sized electrical anarchist who sees katiyas as his calling, climbing utility poles and plugging into cables with little fear of the consequences. On the other side of the firing line is Ritu Maheshwari, the no-nonsense CEO of the local power company, KESCo, whose financial viability has plummeted under the weight of rampant theft and unpaid bills.

Cutting between the two protagonists as the city grows more and more dire, especially during a summer where temperatures often exceed 110° F, Powerless reveals the extent to which neither side is willing to compromise on positions that seem completely unsustainable. While Maheshwari threatens prosecution against the power thieves, sending out squads of bill-collecting thugs to enforce the law, Singh acts like a modern-day Robin Hood, merrily stealing from unaware consumers to energize the poor.

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Using handheld images to capture the sea of crisscrossing cables and makeshift generators, plus the teeming, overpopulated quarters they serve, Mustafa and Kakkar show how much Maheshwari’s seemingly honest effort to quell the surge is utterly futile – something like tossing a sandbag into a tsunami. Meanwhile, the citizens’ anger continues to mount, especially during a wave of blackouts that transforms into vicious street fights and riots, until a closing election sequence offers a flicker of hope to the deprived.

Like the world it portrays, the film is somewhat disorderly in rhythm and tone, alternating Bollywood-style crane shots with pixelated cell phone footage, leading one to suspect that the crew itself had a hard time charging their camera batteries. Music by Gingger Shankar (Circumstance, Bedouin), granddaughter of Ravi Shankar, is intense but also overreaches at times, hitting too many melodramatic notes in a place where drama is readily apparent.

Production companies: Globalistan Films, ITVS International
Directors: Fahad Mustafa, Deepti Kakkar
Producers: Fahad Mustafa, Deepti Kakkar, Judy Tam, Leopold Koegler
Directors of photography: Maria Trieb, Amith Surendran, Fahad Mustafa
Music: Gingger Shankar
Editors: Maria Trieb, Namrata Rao
Sales Agent: Globalistan Films
No rating, 84 minutes