SIPA Student’s Film Wins Worldwide Acclaim

Deepti Kakkar (MIA ’15) screens her award-winning movie about electricity theft in India to students at SIPA  By Andrea Kramar and Harpreet Gill   Earlier this month, Deepti Kakkar (MIA ‘15) stood in front of a packed audience in Lerner Auditorium, welcoming students to an exclusive screening of her latest documentary, “Katiyabaaz.” Kakkar, a soft-spoken first-year student in the International Finance and Economic Policy concentration, seems like any other student at SIPA. But behind her humble façade, Kakkar happens to be a world renown film director and producer. Her latest film, “Katiyabaaz,” released in early 2013, has premiered at over forty film festivals around the world, including Tribeca Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival and Mumbai Film Festival, as well as for Indian policymakers, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Just recently, Kakkar, along with fellow co-director and co-producer, Fahad Mustafa, won the Government of India’s prestigious National Award for Best Investigative Film. Yet despite the widespread recognition, at the screening this April, sponsored by student group CinéSIPA and shown to approximately 100 SIPA students and faculty, Kakkar was feeling especially nervous. As a novice filmmaker debuting the second film she’s ever worked on, Kakkar was worried about what her peers would think of it. Kakkar need not have worried, though; at the end of the film she and Mustafa received a standing ovation. The film, produced through Kakkar’s production company, Globalistan Films, is a film about India’s electricity challenges and the struggle between the poor who can barely afford it and an electricity supply company that is struggling to stay financially afloat. The name of the film, “Katiyabaaz,” comes from the words katiya, which means wire, and baaz, which means sport. The film takes place in the city of Kanpur, an industrial and densely populated city located in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states. Because few people are able to pay the hefty price for electricity and because company-provisioned electricity is highly unreliable, many rely on katiyabaazes, or wire thieves, like Loha Singh. Singh, the documentary’s protagonist, is a master katiyabaaz who sets up illegal electrical wires all over the city, from the sky-high tops of power line polls to the inside nooks of apartments. It’s a dangerous job—Singh has missing teeth and maimed hands from it -and few others are willing to take on the risks. Though many in Kanpur are grateful for Singh’s tireless efforts, its not the case for the Kanpur Electrictiy Supply Company (KESCO). Because so many people steal from the company, KESCO is becoming bankrupt. That situation is prone to change, however, when KESCO appoints a new female chief, Ritu Maheshwari, an intelligent and ambitious middleaged woman with a get-the-job-done mindset. Maheshwari launches a full-blown crackdown, attempting to go after after every household that isn’t paying their bills. The crackdown isn’t easy, however, as there are so many people to go after. In fact, in India, nearly one third of the electricity generated is stolen. Directors Kakkar and Mustafa stayed in Kanpur for nearly two years to film, and were able to document the rise and fall of Maheshwari, who was quickly transferred out of Kanpur due to her controversial tactics. “That was one of the pivotal moments of the film that we couldn’t have predicted,” Kakkar said of Maheshwari’s transfer. Though the film on screen looks seamless, filming in Kanpur wasn’t easy for Kakkar and her team of eleven individuals. Summer temperatures reached 48° C (nearly 120° F.). The crew was working non-stop, living on biscuits and bananas and staying up until the lights went out, sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning. The days were highly unpredictable; sometimes the crew would be in the midst of street riots, most of which surrounded the electricity debacle, and many of which are shown in the film. Despite the dangerousness and the fact that Kakkar was often the sole woman present at the riots, Kakkar remained composed. “Holding a camera gives you a level of immunity,” she said matter-of-factly. At the screening, Kakkar’s co-director, Mustafa, told a story about how Kakkar single-handedly intervened and prevented one fight from blowing up. “Brothers, brothers, please why are you doing this?” she asked the men. Upon hearing Kakkar, “magically all these gangsters were like, ‘No, no, no. Please don’t apologize to us. We should be apologizing to you,’” Mustafa recalled. To an outsider, it might seem strange that an accomplished filmmaker like Kakkar would choose to leave the dynamic filmmaking world to attend a policy school like SIPA. But for Kakkar, the two interests intersect. “The reason I got involved in this film was because ultimately this is a film about politics and governance, which is where my interests lie.” Kakkar’s studies at SIPA are part of Kakkar’s plan to reinvent herself every few years. Kakkar intends to remain committed to the craft of filmmaking after she leaves SIPA, though. She says it’s an “unparalleled high” to “build something out of nothing” with a passionate team of people. For those who missed the screening at Columbia, Katiyabaaz will make its network television premiere in the U.S. on PBS this upcoming fall. Until then, SIPA students will continue to truck along in their coursework, while Kakkar jetsets to the next exciting film premiere.   Harpreet Gill is a first-year Master of Public Administration student. Andrea Kramar is a second-year Master of Public Administration student. This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on May 6th, 2014

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