Friday Talkies Movies

Revisiting 'Neecha Nagar'

A scene from Neecha Nagar.  

Neecha Nagar (Hindi, 1946)

Direction: Chetan Anand

Cast: Rafi Peer, Rafiq Anwar, Uma Anand, Kamini Kaushal, S.P. Bhatia, Hamid Butt, Mohan Segal, Zohra Sehgal

Music: Ravi Shankar


Chetan Anand’s iconic debut film, Neecha Nagar, based on Maxim Gorky’s best-known play, The Lower Depths (1902), belongs to a triad of films that released in 1946. Along with K.A. Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal and V. Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, it can in retrospective be celebrated as the pioneer of the parallel cinema movement in India.

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A stark portrait in social realism, it is worth noting that Neecha Nagar won international acclaim nearly a decade before Pather Panchali (1955), often described as India’s first cinematic triumph in the West. Today, when just being selected for the showcase at Cannes is big news, few know or remember that Neecha Nagar is the only Indian film to win the Palme d’Or in 1946. Yet, while Pather Panchali and many subsequent internationally nominated films and filmmakers continue to be felicitated in India and abroad, Neecha Nagar did not even get a wide commercial release here.

Made in the final years of the Raj (1945-46), the film provides valuable insights into the mood of the nation then, especially of its restless and revolutionary young, who were prepared for any level of personal sacrifice for independence.

It’s worth pondering how its protagonists — the Gandhi-cap clad Balraj (Rafiq Anwar) and his charkha-spinning sister Rupa (Kamini Kaushal) managed to escape the British censors. These visual reminders apart, Balraj’s ‘non-cooperative’ campaign against the ‘modern’ rulers, shown wearing Western attire and driven by a tyrant capitalist mindset, closely echoed the Mahatma’s methods of protest. He thunders — “Aap paise se hamara imaan, hamari zameen, hamari tandrusti, sab kharidna chahte hain… Par ab khamoshi ka zamana gujar chuka!” (You want to buy our land, honour, health, everything, but the time of silence is now past.)

Documenting revolution

A powerful industrialist, Sarkar (Rafi Peer), who lives in an elevated, palatial estate, plots to redirect his sewage line so that it flows into the low-lying ‘neecha nagar’, where the poor live. Predictably, they rise in protest. But Sarkar breaks their unity using the time-tested methods of saam, daam, dand, bhed (plea, bribe, threat, divide).

With toxic waste now flowing through the village, an epidemic breaks out and the helpless villagers are forced to go to the new hospital constructed by Sarkar. Balraj leads a campaign and asks people to boycott the hospital even if it means losing their near and dear ones, thereby thwarting Sarkar’s plans. After his sister dies, the villagers are inspired to join Balraj’s fight. Their struggle gets a fillip when Sarkar’s conscientious daughter, Maya (Uma Anand), agrees to offer evidence against her father.

Chetan Anand and the poster of Neecha Nagar.

Chetan Anand and the poster of Neecha Nagar.  

The film argues that socialism is the only solution to the common man’s problems and struggles. Chetan Anand and his group of actors and technicians were influenced by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a prominent Left-leaning cultural outfit that had creatively supported Neecha Nagar and had also produced Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal.

Another interesting factor in the film is that it appeals to the innate good in every human being, rich or poor. This can be directly attributed to Gandhi’s faith in the power of non-violent protests to achieve amity between the oppressed and the oppressor by appealing to the soul of the latter. The industrialist being named ‘Sarkar’, meaning government, is no mere coincidence. It showed that the business class, and not the elected representative, is vested with decision-making powers.

Evocative aesthetics

Vidyapati Ghosh’s cinematography stands out. Sarkar is always captured looking down on the people of Neecha Nagar. The high and low angle shots when Sarkar meets a group of villagers heighten emotions. Neecha Nagar innovatively blends documentary footage with acted scenes, a signature of Chetan Anand’s auteurship, which lends it the feel of a researched docu-drama.

The film’s other highlight is an arresting music score by another talented debutant, sitarist Pt. Ravi Shankar. Though he mostly dabbles with harsh notes and protest music through the film, the piece-de-resistance is the unusual soundtrack of an eerily shot reunion scene between ex-lovers Maya and Balraj.

Each of the film’s debuting cast of actors — Kamini Kaushal, Rafiq Anwar and Uma Anand (Chetan’s wife) — make a mark, but it is Rafi Peer as Sarkar who makes the maximum impact. The film’s workshop is theatre, but credit goes to director Chetan Anand not to make his film or its characters theatrical.

A valuable social document, the concerns of Neecha Nagar are as relevant today as at the time of its making. The film remains a prominent achievement by one of the most experimental auteurs of Indian cinema who never got his due. Such is the impact of his debut work that it will compel any serious student of cinema to delve further into his eclectic oeuvre — ranging from India’s first war film (Haqeeqat, 1966) to Hindi cinema’s first musical drama (Heer Ranjha, 1970).

The critic, author, filmmaker is Dean, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, RV University, Bengaluru.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 3:27:30 AM |

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