Katiyabaaz is a film made keeping Indian audiences specifically in mind – Fahad Mustafa
Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar’s docu-drama Katiyabaaz, based on the electricity crisis in Kanpur, has travelled to prestigious film festivals around the world. It was awarded the Best Investigative Film at the 61st National Awards and won the India Gold at MAMI 2013. Fahad speaks to Pandolin about the genesis of Katiyabaaz, his central character Loha Singh and the making of this hard-hitting film that highlights a conflict that impacts the lives of thousands in India.
Was Katiyabaaz inspired by any particular incident?
I was born in Kanpur but grew up outside the country. Five years ago, I was in Austria and that is where I started making films. I always wanted to return to India and shoot my city and particularly Chamanganj, the neighborhood I was born in. When I came back to India and we started researching, our focus increasingly moved to the lack of something as basic as electricity. More than a quarter of this country’s population live without electricity. So that was the peg we got started on. We then met Loha Singh, who is a fantastic person and a boon for any filmmaker because he is naturally engaging.
What is the kind of research that went into this film? What was your experience making it?
We spent around seven months researching the subject and shoot locations. The film follows two characters – one steals electricity and the other is an IAS officer. We were in Kanpur for almost a year and a half, shooting with the characters almost throughout. What we also researched was the situations we could expect, riots due to lack of electricity and the elections were also round the corner, so we knew that it could impact the crisis. Our goal was to bring the film to the theatres and not restrict it to just film festivals. So that raised a lot of questions – how do you get people excited about a documentary, how do you draw their interest towards a crisis that they are living with everyday. In North India, lack of electricity is a daily reality. Conceptually figuring out the narrative, what would be interesting, funding, shooting process of the film, and so on was challenging. It was a an incredible learning process.
You have employed a satirical approach to a burning issue in the film. Was it a planned effort or something that happened along the way?
It came naturally, it was not a conscious decision. The issue is real and the characters in the film are embedded in that reality. Besides, Kanpurias are known for their dark humour. Making fun of the system, the society etc., that is the milieu we were shooting in. And a lot of it is the character Loha, a product of his circumstances. But we haven’t adopted a lighthearted approach because we understand how critical the issue is for the people who are facing it.
Is using humour as a tool a trend in the documentary film industry today? If so, what do you think is driving the trend?
Humor according to me, makes it easier for people to relate to things. It is easy for a person to connect with humor. Stories told using humour as a tool opens it up to more people.
How hard was it shooting in Kanpur and what kind of cameras and lenses did you use?
We were always surrounded by hundreds of people while we were shooting. Everyone was curious and that made the shooting situation more chaotic. Once the public became aware of what the film was about, they were happy to co-operate. They would tell us quite openly that the reason they steal electricity is because they don’t get enough electricity supply. And it’s not that they are not paying for this electricity, just that they don’t pay the government but instead pay the people who steal electricity. We had to lobby very hard to get permissions to shoot with the electricity supply board and from the UP government. There hasn’t been a new power plant for 22 years in UP.
Tell us about the casting for the film and your central character Loha Singh.
We were introduced to Loha Singh through his drinking buddy. His friend knew that we were looking for a character for our film. In fact, we had someone else in mind who developed cold feet at the last minute. My crew had already arrived from Vienna and we had nobody to shoot with. That’s when we met Loha; from the word go he was tremendously engaging and interesting. He was a bit hard to follow around because he was initially standoffish but eventually came around. The other character in the film is Ritu Maheshwari, an IAS officer who was appointed as the chief of Kanpur Electricity Supply Company. We had to get permissions to shoot with her.
What kind of expertise did award-winning editor Namrata Rao bring to the team?
We started our edit in Vienna, but Maria, our editor then, was heavily pregnant and was no longer able to continue. So we came to Bombay with a 100-minute cut and got in touch with Namrata. It was really great working with her because she’s such a talented and accomplished editor. While Maria is very visual in her approach, Namrata is very conceptual; so there was a nice interplay that worked really well for the film.
This is your second film with cinematographer & editor Maria Trieb. What was your brief to her in terms of visual composition?
Maria and I are friends and lived together for three years. We had collaborated on projects in the past, but this is the first time that we were working together in India. She has a rare talent for visual detail. We talked a lot about the ‘cable salads’ and how they are telling the tangled story of Kanpur. We eventually developed a technique where we would be working with 2-3 cameras on the ground, one of which was always in the chaos of action while the other provided a calmer, objective perspective.
What role does music play in your film? How did you zero in on Indian Ocean to compose the music?
A very important role. Music is central to a film’s appeal, especially for Indian audiences. We eventually had four composers score for the film. We spoke to Indian Ocean very early on in the project, then things drifted and we lost touch, but they came on board again with a terrific song.
How did you acquire funding for Katiyabaaz? Was it an easy process by any means?
Funding was not easy. We were always running behind some financer or the other, and eventually ended up putting together funds from eight countries. ITVS came on board as a co-producer and there was terrific support from the Sundance Institute, Cinereach and IDFA.
Do you think Indian audiences are now more open to documentaries? How has the response to Katiyabaaz been? What lies ahead for the film?
I believe so. We have people writing in to us from all parts of India asking about the film’s release. It’s a myth that Indians don’t watch documentaries. Any well made film will find its audience, and Katiyabaaz is a film made keeping Indian audiences specifically in mind.
Katiyabaaz is being presented by Phantom Films and will have its theatrical release on August 22nd.