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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar was first Indian film to win at Cannes 75 years ago but we bet you have never seen it

75 years ago, it was Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar that first took Indian cinema on a global stage and won the grand prize at the Cannes Film festival. On the filmmaker's birth anniversary, here's revisiting the film.

Written by Sampada Sharma | New Delhi |
Updated: January 1, 2022 10:03:58 am
neecha nagarChetan Anand's Neecha Nagar is the only Indian film to have won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

What do you think when someone says ‘Cannes Film Festival?’ An average Indian moviegoer, who doesn’t indulge much in international cinema, might equate Cannes to a fashion show because after all, the film festival occupies our social media feed every year only because of the red carpet appearances made by desi celebs. It is rare for an Indian film to get selected at Cannes, and extremely rare to win the Palme d’Or (which was earlier called Grand Prix du Festival International du Film), an award that is often considered the highest honour in cinema. So rare that it has only happened once. While today’s audience might know about Cannes only because of the celebrity fashion appearances, India was once at the forefront of the festival and won the very first Palme d’Or in 1946. Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar won the prestigious award back in the day but somehow, the film remains lost in obscurity in its home country.

Satyajit Ray’s 1955 film Pather Panchali is often regarded as the film that took Indian cinema to a global stage but before Ray’s classic, it was Chetan Anand’s film that represented us on a global platform. It might be shocking to note that Neecha Nagar never really got a wide release here and historians point out that this could be because of the film’s lack of song-and-dance, as it was edited out for the festival. It also bore the brunt of the political climate of the nation as the film’s producer moved to Pakistan after the Partition. But Neecha Nagar has a deep connection with Ray. In Uma Anand’s book The Poetics of Film (Uma was an actor in Neecha Nagar and was the wife of director Chetan), she mentioned that when they were struggling to find distributors for the film, they received a letter from Calcutta where the writer wrote that he had been inspired by Neecha Nagar to continue striving to make his first film and this writer was Satyajit Ray.

neecha nagar Neecha Nagar marked the first film of Kamini Kaushal.

Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar had a strong theme that captured the essence of India in 1946, and one can see that how the theme here is quite universal and timeless in nature. The film’s title refers to a fictional town named Neecha Nagar, where ‘Neecha’ means that it is physically downhill and also that it is the place where the lower economic class resides. The folks from Ooncha Nagar, or the town situated uphill where wealthy people live, reside in close proximity but their worlds are poles apart. When a rich businessman, cleverly named Sarkar (or government) decides that the open sewage canal that takes away the dirt of Ooncha Nagar must go via Neecha Nagar, the town opposes. Sarkar has a vested interest in the project, and despite the growing opposition, he moves on with his plan. At one point, he says that the sewage canal is nothing but a stream of water that has a bit of dirt, and even employs a man from Neecha Nagar to clean it up and divides them. When Neecha Nagar gets hit with an epidemic due to the unhygienic living conditions, Sarkar constructs a hospital so he can earn even more out of the misery that he created in the first place.

Watching Neecha Nagar is a portal to the world of the 1940s when India was on the cusp of gaining its freedom and the country’s youth was done with being a mute spectator to the injustices of the more powerful. The film is filled with sparks of revolution where those from the lower economic class are no longer afraid of facing the rich, even if it amounts to them sacrificing their lives for their land. The streets of Neecha Nagar are filthy with dirt but Sarkar refuses to believe it, rather he laughs it off. To make matters worse, Sarkar even cuts off the water supply of Neecha Nagar so the locals will bow down, which results in even more deaths.

Unlike the Hindi films of the 1950s, where the rich are often labelled as mean villains, and the poor are shown as honest and kind, Neecha Nagar talks about the goodness in one’s hearts – despite their economic standing. When Sarkar’s injustices are causing devastation in Neecha Nagar, the locals of Ooncha Nagar show their sympathy and regret not being more involved in the matters. They eventually lend their support to Neecha Nagar. In fact, it is Sarkar’s daughter Maya who eventually presents the proof needed for justice. The film can also be seen as an allegory for the British Raj, which is probably why its villain is named Sarkar.

In his later years, Chetan Anand made films like Haqeeqat, Heer Ranjha, Kudrat and the much-acclaimed Doordarshan show Param Vir Chakra but it was Neecha Nagar that laid the foundation for his cinematic journey. Neecha Nagar is a treasured part of our cinematic history so it comes as a shock that the film is often not as celebrated as many of its contemporaries.

Neecha Nagar is avaialble on YouTube and MUBI.

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