‘Neecha Nagar’ (1946), is the first-ever and the only Indian film to win the Grand Prix award, the highest prize at the prestigious Cannes film festival. Despite the film’s grand victory, it didn’t receive the recognition that it deserved.
The film was Chetan Anand’s directorial debut, who is also known for launching Amitabh Bachchan in his film ‘Saath Hindustani’ (1969).
The other maestros helming the film were the writer duo, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, and Hayatullah Ansari. The film also introduced Pandit Ravi Shankar, who gave the film its musical score.
The film saw sublime performance by Rafi Anwar, Kamini Kaushal, Zohra Sehgal, Uma Anand, and Rafi Peer.
Dipped in social realism, the film was inspired by Russian-Soviet writer Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths. An allegorical take on the social disparity that exists in the society, the storyline revolves around the hardships that the people of ‘Neecha Nagar’ (literally, ‘Lower Town’) have to suffer at the hands of the bourgeoise, Sarkar. Sarkar through his team of municipal sycophants and power guaranteed by money redirects the flow of the sewage towards the settlement of ‘Neecha Nagar’. This leads to an uprising against Sarkar, as the sewage further deteriorates the living condition of the already hapless people. As people begin falling ill, Sarkar devices a plan to get a hospital built where the ill people can get their treatment. Quite ironically, he gives a solution to a disease caused by him, notwithstanding, for his own ulterior gains.
The film’s storyline was a stark commentary on the nature of governance during the British Raj. The name of the builder-businessman, Sarkar, is a subtextual similarity being drawn between the wealthy man on an exploitative spree and the then British Raj.
The film indeed set many benchmarks in Indian cinema through the creative use of the visual elements to bring out the social disparity. While the people of ‘Neecha Nagar’ are always clad in kurta-pyjama and Nehruvian topi, the people of the upper echelon don English suits. The mise-en-scene of the film is realistic with naturalistic lighting and the camera has been used creatively to accentuate character emotions.
The film finds its relevance even after seventy-two years of India’s independence. The handling of the coronavirus lockdown that uprooted and killed many migrant workers, the EIA 2020 draft, and the new farm bills that systemically disadvantage the poor while benefiting the capitalists, are few examples from contemporary times.
The film, made during the turbulent times, ran into trouble with the distributors for many reasons. The film was populated by new faces and lacked the quintessential Bollywood mirch-masala. Moreover, at a time when the talks of India’s partition were rife, the fact that the film was produced by Rashid Anwar, a Muslim, also went against it.
Even though the film never saw its commercial release in India, it carved a path for what we know today as the Indian parallel cinema.
In 1950 Chetan Anand showed the film to then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his entourage at a conference in Panchsheel. After this, the film producers screened the film at a few cinema halls in Bombay suburbs. Lacking in song and dance sequences, however, the film didn’t interest the audience. After the Partition, the producers migrated to Pakistan, taking the film along. Thereafter, the film bit the dust, and quite literally so, until years later, Subrata Mitra, who was the still photographer for Satyajit Rays’ film, found a can of rotting film at a raddi waala’s shop in Kolkatta that was destined to be burnt. Intrigued, Mitra purchased the cans, and later discovered it was a print of Neecha Nagar. The print was handed over to the National Film Archives in Pune, the only reason we can still watch this historic film today.
You can watch the film here.
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