Most of us can't imagine living without electricity. There are certainly people in the U.S. who, because of extreme poverty or lack of access don't have reliable power, but for the most part we take electricity for granted. Kanpur, India is a city of three million people where the power is out sixteen hours a day. An antiquated and overwhelmed power grid makes electricity extremely unreliable. The new documentary Powerless goes inside this energy crisis, and the outlook is not hopeful for a city plagued with crumbling infrastructure and an intractable bureaucracy.
The film focuses on two people, both key players in the drama who never meet but have a profound effect on the other. Loha is a young electrician who makes a living constructing illegal electrical connections in the poorer neighborhoods of the city to provide power to many people who either can't afford to pay or can't penetrate the red tape to get hooked up. The people see him as a hero, fighting against a system that doesn't care for the poor. On the other side of the spectrum is Ritu, the first woman to run the Kanpur power company. She immediately begins to fight corruption in the company and electricity theft in the city, focusing on the illegal power connections that Loha and others like him have built around the city.
What makes the film compelling is that both Loha and Ritu are decent people in an impossible situation. Without the power that Loha provides illegally businesses would fail and people would die. Ritu wants to help the poor, but the illegal power connections overload the transformers and make it impossible for the company to improve the infrastructure. It's a vicious cycle made worse by a particularly hot summer in which the angry citizens take to the streets in protest. Their anger is stoked by a local politician whose populist message seems more about garnering votes than helping anyone; he is the closest the story has to a villain.
What sticks with me most about the film are the visuals of the miles of power lines snaking across the city, intertwining like spider webs, covering entire buildings in a choking blanket of metal and wire. It is a striking image that seems completely alien to one used to the orderly and often invisible power system we're accustomed to. By the end of the film there seems to be little hope of substantial change in Kanpur, with Loha resolved to keep doing what he must to give power to the powerless.