Tribeca Capsule Review: Powerless


At the beginning of the documentary Powerless, we’re told that 1.5 billion people in the world live without electricity, and that 400 million of those people live in India. The numbers are pretty staggering, especially when we take for granted all that’s required for a proper power infrastructure. The population density in India becomes especially problematic given how much strain that puts on the already overtaxed grid.

These issues about access to electricity are further complicated by electricity thieves in India, who siphon power for others off existing lines. But the lives of these electricity thieves are just one facet of the broader issue that Powerless examines.

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Powerless (Katiyabaaz)
Directors: Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar
Rating: TBD
Country: India
Release Date: TBD

Electricity is essential for any developing country, especially one with a fair amount of industry. Such is the case with Kanpur. Rolling blackouts are a reality, and some of these are long-term, lasting half the day or longer. The only way that business owners can keep small textile factories and tanneries going is to use gas-powered generators, or they can get one of the electricity thieves to help them. The one thief that directors Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar center on is named Loha Singh. With great daring, he climbs poles and rigs wires into the dangerous cat’s cradle around him. It’s this risk that pays Loha’s bills and gives households enough energy to keep a light on at night.

And yet while people like Loha are developing-world Robin Hoods, they’re also part of the problem. Stolen power places extreme burden on the grid leading to blackouts. And since none of this stolen power is paid for, it’s difficult to get the necessary revenue to make improvements that would reduce blackouts in the future. It’s also dangerous, not just for Loha — who shares stories of electrocution — but for the citizens; several generator explosions and fires are caught on camera, and I couldn’t help but wince as someone tried to put out an electrical fire with a bucket of water.

Powerless shifts focus back and forth from the struggles of the people to the difficulties of higher-ups, like Ritu Maheshwari, one of the heads of Kesco, Kanpur’s power company. She’s sincere in trying to help, it seems, but she’s caught in the unfortunate trap of being viewed as an enemy simply because of her position; the thief gets to be the romantic hero, the person in any perceived seat of power is the villain despite good intentions.

The issues of Powerless are complex and go unanswered, which is probably because there are no easy fixes given the scale of the problem. There are such impassioned interests involved on the various sides of the issue, and none are willing to budge too much. Amid this complicated power struggle, Mustafa and Kakkar inject a few visually interesting segments that play out as if they’re from a narrative film rather than a documentary. There’s a panorama of struggle here that’s fascinating to watch even if it’s troubling at the end.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.