Neecha Nagar – 1946
Like world cinema, we in India too have fashioned some form of ‘realist’ films through the years brought on by the ‘new wavers’ of each generation – usually in the shape of a non conformist group trying to make their presence felt on the commercial film scene. At present, we find them as a new breed of young art enthusiasts who want to do films differently. But in the forties we had them in the shape of progressive leftists from the theater, attracted to films and moved by the desire to change the scene for the better with their radical look at life and society. From the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) came a fine band of young, theater intellectuals and it was one such group which made ‘Neecha Nagar’ (1946, the title loosely translated means ‘Lowly Town’). Infused with social realism and a year after its release, Neecha Nagar was honored by the Grand Prix Award at the Cannes Festival, thus bringing the name of its maker Chetan Anand into great prominence.
The story, unfolding like an expressionist fable, depicts the dire class struggle of the times. High above on a mountain lost in the seclusion of his own pleasures lives a rich landowner while far below in the plains, in Neecha Nagar, the poor struggle, steeped in poverty. Unmindful of their condition and eyeing their land, which under optimum conditions has a substantial value, the landlord diverts the drain water to flow by their dwellings, thus bringing disease and death in its wake. When they resent, he devises a way of buying them off but he can do little in containing the growing resentment and rage of these people which finally breaks the barriers to engulf and sweep him away from his position.
Adapted from Maxim Gorky’s play ‘The Lower Depths’ by K A Abbas, the narrative of conflict between the rich and poor is resolutely split up into easy-to-understand signs and symbols, so as to go home to the masses in something of a classroom fashion. Much like Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1927), where class distinctions were even more clearly delineated with the wealthy living on land and the working class in inhuman, subterranean cells, Neecha Nagar too shows us the positioning of the two classes. An imaginary line cuts through the film, visibly separating the rich, living high on the hill from the poor, living low in the plains below. The drain slush sent down from above stands for the degradation of poverty which the rich inflict on the poor. Shrewdly, the capacious landlord is called ‘sarkar’ (master) and he keeps alternating his role between as being the head of state and the head of the class he represents.
The mood of the film is laden with gloom and anticipation of sadness which sometimes seems misplaced in the story. However, what is really appealing, even now across the years, is the spirit of comradeship binding the players. The most striking performance of all comes from Rafi Peer as the rich man. He meets a long drawn out, melodramatic end by heart attack.
To all appearances, his character looks like a stage-inspired version of Macbeth – a man caught up and destroyed by the turmoil of the own conscience. Also can be seen are Zohra Sehgal, who died recently and Uma Anand, the director’s wife.
It would be a surprise for many to know that Neecha Nagar was the first film to have music by Ravi Shankar. This was nearly ten years before he composed the background score of ‘Pather Panchali’ for which he won world acclaim. Despite the difference of years, one cannot miss being moved by his genius for selecting instruments and his keen film sense.
Over time, as the forces of commerce became stronger, a few of the names that formed the ‘Neecha Nagar’ branched out to work independently – most notably directors Chetan Anand and Mohan Segal and actress Kamini Kaushal. The film in India, ironically, has its own way of silently scattering the united strength of those forces which dare to question its premises and take up arms against its traditional system.