Revisiting Neecha Nagar, The Only Indian Film to Win Palme D'Or at Cannes
Amidst the ongoing Cannes Film Festival, a look at Neecha Nagar, the only Indian film to win Palme D'or.
Even as all the lenses are turned towards the Cannes Film Festival, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the only Indian film to have won the prestigious Palme d'Or. Based on Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar (1946) was one of the earliest exponents of social realism in Indian cinema.
The film deals with a conflict between the poor residents of Neecha Nagar (Neecha can be translated to lower, but could also be taken to mean downtrodden, lowly) and Sarkar (Rafi Peer) of the affluent Uncha Nagar over shifting of a 'Naala' (sewage line) to Neecha Nagar.
Leading the protests is Balraj (Rafiq Anwar), his sister Rupa (Kamini Kaushal), and Yaqoob Chacha (Hamid Butt). Sarkar's daughter, Maya (Uma Anand), harbours sympathy towards Balraj. However, Sarkar ensures the success of his dream project. What ensues is a fight to overturn this decision.
A very strong emphasis is laid on the ideological content of the movement to save Neecha Nagar. The movie is an exhortation of Gandhian thought. However, despite its romantic portrayal of the achievements that lie at the end of the crusade, it doesn't shy away from depicting the costs one has to pay in this peaceful battle. It also critically analyses the perils that lie for those involved in this struggle.
First, they have to contend with those who don't follow the path. Thus, in the beginning, we see the lack of coordination within the group that goes to put their grievances before Sarkar.
This isn't much different from the various civil rebellions and tribal uprisings against the Britishers in the 19th century, where the grievances were local but based on the economic exploitation of the foreign rule.
In India's Struggle for Independence, Bipan Chandra listed the reasons for the failure of these movements as "… Their resistance represented no societal alternative … Its basic objective was to restore earlier forms of rule and social relations. Such backward looking and scattered, sporadic and disunited uprisings were incapable of fending off or overthrowing foreign rule."
The 'disunited' group that presents their case before Sarkar is guided by anger and a desire for quick resolution of their 'local' issue rather than an understanding of the real nature of Sarkar's operations. None of them make a coherent point till Sarkar himself moves to Balraj and Yaqoob Chacha.
Those who have decided to follow the path of a 'planned, peaceful' struggle against Sarkar have also understood his game. His manoeuvre is one of double-speak and redefining things to his favour.
So, the dirty 'Naala' becomes a clear 'Nahar' (stream) according to him. He clarifies to the aggrieved group that his plan to divert the 'Nahar' is intended to prevent the growth of a swamp which might affect the health of the city.
However, his real motivation lies in using the land that would be freed up after the diversion of the 'Naala'. In reality, he believes that the residents of Neecha Nagar are 'Neech' (Base/Contemptible) who are intentionally creating troubles for him.
He even creates a post to look after cleaning the so-called 'Nahar'. This situation is similar to the British rule creating several famine commissions after unleashing an economic order which exacerbated the impact of the famines.
But merely understanding the ways of Sarkar is different from waging a struggle against him. Balraj and his allies have to face the bitter truth of starting a non-cooperation movement. They learn that the revolutionary capacities of the masses can be exhausted, hence, no struggle can be a permanent one. They face troubles when Sarkar builds a hospital (to alleviate the plague he helped create).
Their proposed solution is to boycott the hospital and treat the ill on their own in a 'Sevagraha'. This, however, meets stringent opposition from both the town folks as well as their family members.
In the end, an individual's sacrifice for the 'righteous' cause allows the movement to regain momentum.
The slogan in the movie "Mar Jao par Haspatal mat jao" (Die but don't go to the hospital) isn't too different from the slogan of 'Do or Die' which resonated through the country during the Quit India movement in 1942.
While this 'Gandhian' solution might not sit well with many today, it is shown as one of the legitimate methods of facing off against an authority that is supposed to reflect the unjust but 'constitutional' British rule.
The film makes an interesting observation on 'the way things seem to be versus what they are'. So, the contrast between Sarkar's strong 'Imaratein' (buildings) with the dirty homes of Neecha Nagar are supposed to create an image of renegade residents of the town who stand against the idea of development. When Maya, under the influence of her father calls the residents "Lafangey" (Crooks), Balraj retorts "Aapke Shareef pita ji ne nal katwa diya hai…. (Your noble father has cut off our water supply)".
The educated Sagar seeks to impress Sarkar Ji with his proficiency in the English language (to imitate his customs and ways), but in reality, what impresses Sarkar is his preference for material life. This is depicted very cleverly through a close shot of Sagar's hands which shows that he has taken more cigarettes than those offered by Sarkar. The very next shot shows us that the conniving builder has noticed the same.
This character trait makes him an efficient lackey of Sarkar. The movie does ask a few questions of the modern audience. Would they identify more with Balraj or Sagar?
Would Balraj's near-suicidal plan hold to the modern-day Indians well, even if it is equipped with the notion of taking away the legitimacy from the oppressor? Is Sagar wrong if all he wants is a good life and doesn't want a face-off against the all-powerful Sarkar?
In a pre-1991 situation, the answers to oppression from above were Bharat Kumar and Vijay. In a post-1991 globalized and liberalized India, there are no easy answers.
Another question is whether the same course of action can be taken by residents of Neecha Nagar today? Sarkar was still an alien ruler trying to run his diktat over the residents. He had his palatial estate far away from the dirty houses of Neecha Nagar. The close shots of his angry face were dissolved into the shots of the dirty 'Naala' flowing into Neecha Nagar to amplify his cruelty.
Would they be able to take a similar line of Gandhian non-cooperative protests against a municipal chairperson, who is one of their own? One who speaks behaves and thinks just like them. Would the presence of instrumentalities of an independent nation such as free courts, democratic legislatures, press, etc. make them take a different route?
Irrespective of their choice they'd certainly become important 'news items' on social and mainstream media. Ones to be shared, liked, retweeted, and subscribed.
The agreement or disagreement with their cause will have to do with propaganda wars between power groups rather than its legitimacy. Interestingly this isn't too different from the movie where the villain intends to create false propaganda around the people's protests.
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