Retro Review: Neecha Nagar (1946).
This tale of rich versus poor made waves around the globe and ushered in the era of Indian social realism cinema.
We jump from India’s first feature film to India’s first globally recognized film. Neecha Nagar won the Grand Prix at the very first Cannes Film Festival, and is the only Indian film to have received the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Its focus on societal ills and realistic portrayals of the culture of the time brought sweeping changes to the landscape of Indian Cinema. Within a decade, directors such as Chetan Anand, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak would dominate the Golden Age of Indian cinema making socio-political pictures. Neecha Nagar acted as a stepping stone to this “Parallel Cinema” movement. It retains the characteristic song, dance, and romantic elements of the popular Bollywood features of the time, but minimizes them and works them realistically into the plot.
Neecha Nagar (1946).
Neecha Nagar – Low City in Hindi – is a precarious and poor village which rests below the palatial mansion of a wealthy Indian industrialist (Rafi Peer). The plutocrat eyes the land near Neecha Nagar for development and plots ways to displace the citizens.
When the townspeople learn that he intends to divert a local sewage system through their town, they send representatives to plead their case. Balraj (Rafiq Anwar) is a passionate populist who catches the eye of the business magnate’s daughter Maya (Uma Anand), but he is undercut by Sagar, a western-educated young man who idolizes the rich man. As the town fills with sewage and disease, Balraj and Maya scramble to find a way to stop the destruction.
Full disclosure, I watched Neecha Nagar in Hindi-Urdu. I do not speak Hindi-Urdu. As far as I can find, there is still no English subtitled version of this film, despite its cultural importance. As for the film itself, two versions exist online, one badly faded and off-center, and a much better version. Even in the better version, the last reel is badly damaged and of poor quality.
So, as I was not able to follow the story directly, I had to rely heavily on plot synopsis to know who and what I was seeing. For that, I want to thank Madhulika Liddle at Dusted Off for an excellent plot run down and excellent review. Her comparison of Neecha Nagar to Frtiz Lang’s seminal Metropolis is especially insightful.
High and Low.
Director Chetan Anand uses minimalism and realism to striking effect in his film. The ideas are very straightforward. The poor town is literally called low town while the rich estate is high town. The name of the businessman translates to “government,” which would have been a particularly dirty word at at time when English rule of India was becoming increasingly antithetical to the people (and was one year away from collapsing). There’s not a lot of subtlety in the have’s versus the have-not’s story. To keep it from becoming a simple parable, Anand grounds the film in the day to day experiences of the people. Often, this involves striking imagery of human suffering that must have really stood out from the mythological epics and musicals of the day.
There are a few cinematic tricks and tropes on offer. The procession of the townspeople to the mansion in two key scenes parallel each other; the first in the day time accompanied by an upbeat song, and the second at night with a more defiant soundtrack. The director often uses repetition to highlight how much the town and story has changed from the cheer and optimism of the early scenes. Anand also uses point of view to highlight his themes. The rich man and his estate are often shot with low angle shots, elevating him in our perspective, while the poor town is shot from a high angle.
I mentioned the songs and dances, which feel obligatory in much of Indian cinema. Anand includes them early and couches them in the celebrations of the town…where you’d probably find much singing and dancing in real life. While the music does feel a bit “cinematic” in the way of Hollywood musicals of the era, it is also distinctly folksy. This film saw the debut of soon to be famous Ravi Shankar as the film’s musical director, and his style of blending modern and traditional music and instrumentation serves the film beautifully.
Did Not See That Coming.
Neecha Nagar does some surprising things with its story. The plan that Maya and Balraj come up with to shame the businessman in front of the magistrates is poetically appropriate. In the final sequence, a bit of magical realism sneaks into the picture, as the guilty conscience of our antagonist transforms the grotesque shows of wealth in his home into horrific apparitions. It does feel a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film, but a few early shots deftly set up this ending.
It seems that history makes all things new again, and in 2019 especially the social and political messages of Neecha Nagar resonate. You can see the quality of the film that earned it international attention. It’s a shame that this milestone film doesn’t yet have an English version available, and you have to screen it off of YouTube. It’s also a shame to see that the story of the rich crushing the poor never seems to stop needing to be told anew.