I am a bit of an iconoclast. Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, while considered one of the great classics of Russian literature, left me cold when I read it. To me, it seemed too cluttered with characters, too devoid of plot, and just—well, without anything that would make me want to go back to it all over again.
So I approached Neecha Nagar—Chetan Anand’s debut film as a director—with a good deal of trepidation. Because Neecha Nagar was inspired by The Lower Depths, and I expected something horrendously morbid and impossible to understand without the benefit of footnotes.
I am pleased to announce that I was pleasantly surprised. Neecha Nagar is not without its shortcomings, but it is, on the whole, a true classic. Not stereotypically ‘Hindi film’-ish, and with a universal quality to it that makes it far more memorable than a lot of other pre-Independence films. I’m not surprised, really, that this film didn’t just make it to the first Cannes Film Festival (in 1946), but also won the Grand Prix at the festival.
The eponymous Neecha Nagar (literally ‘low town’) is a settlement in a valley. The people of Neecha Nagar are mostly quite poor. Even when they aren’t leading a hand-to-mouth existence, they’re hardly rolling in luxury. Among the people we get to know in the first few minutes of the film (during which we see a cheerful song-and-dance celebrating the coming of spring) are Rupa (Kamini Kaushal) and her beloved, Sagar (SP Bhatia).
They also have another elder brother of whom we see and hear fairly little. This man’s wife, Rupa’s and Balraj’s bhabhi, however, is a familiar face: Zohra Saigal, who also did the choreography for the film (trivia: when screened at Cannes, the dances were edited out of the film, as was one of the songs).
High (both literally and metaphorically) above Neecha Nagar lives Sarkar (Rafi Peer). His mansion is luxurious, home to plush velvet upholstery, marble floors, and Sarkar’s daughter Maya (Uma Anand, in her sole appearance as an actress). Maya had studied in college with Balraj, and the two of them are in love with each other, though Balraj, realising their difference in status, has cut himself off from Maya.
Sarkar isn’t just a very wealthy man; he’s also a man who won’t stop at anything to add to his wealth. Currently, the one thing standing in the way of his making even more money is Neecha Nagar.
The problem is that Neecha Nagar sits on prime land—land on which Sarkar can launch a profitable building project.
Sarkar, therefore, comes up with what he feels is the perfect solution: divert a drain that runs through the area, in such a way that it drains away the swamp. And where should the drain be diverted? Towards Neecha Nagar. That will have the added benefit of driving away the residents of Neecha Nagar, leaving Sarkar free to take over their land and construct buildings on it.
This, then, is where the film begins. Balraj, Rupa, and their elderly friend (their so-called chaacha, or uncle) Hakim Yaqub Khan (Hamid Butt), are among the first to learn of the proposed diversion of the drain. They know, of course, what will be the consequences for Neecha Nagar, so a delegation of Neecha Nagar’s foremost citizens—including Yaqub chaacha, Balraj, and Sagar—go to meet Sarkar, to try and reason with him.
Sarkar refuses, and puts forward his own logic: this ‘drain’ isn’t a drain, but a canal. It will only bring prosperity to Neecha Nagar, providing water for irrigation, and for the Neecha Nagar cattle to be watered.
Nobody is taken in by this. But Sarkar isn’t listening, especially as he knows that he controls nearly everybody on the local municipality board. The municipality will do what Sarkar wants it to do.
One person from Neecha Nagar goes away from the meeting excited rather than despondent. This is Rupa’s ambitious sweetheart, Sagar. Sagar thinks of himself as a debonair, forward-thinking and Westernised man. A misfit in Neecha Nagar, perhaps, where everybody is too down-to-earth (stick-in-the-mud?) for Sagar’s tastes. [An insight into Sagar's way of thinking is offered when he first goes to Sarkar's as part of the delegation: just before they go in to meet Sarkar, he bends down to dust his highly polished shoes, and to sharpen the creases in his trousers].
Sarkar is quick to realise Sagar’s potential too. Soon after, a message arrives at Sagar’s house, inviting Sagar to meet Sarkar at his mansion, privately.
Sarkar offers a simple proposition: Sagar will be his employee, for the monthly sum of Rs 300, and will be responsible for ensuring that any filth the ‘canal’ carries with it is cleared away. Nothing is said beyond that, but the implications are clear: Sagar is to be Sarkar’s man in Neecha Nagar.
The people of Neecha Nagar, having registered their complaint with Sarkar, watch on as the drain is diverted, its foul, sewage-filled water swirling into their settlement. (This is a hard-hitting, very telling scene: muck flows on the muddy waters; a dog’s corpse floats along, bubbles rise from the filth, and vultures roost in an ominous row, waiting…). The vile water comes right up to the doorsteps of the houses in Neecha Nagar.
On its heels comes disease. The people of Neecha Nagar start falling ill. Another delegation—more desperate than the last—goes again to Sarkar to plead, and again finds its pleas falling on deaf ears.
As if this wasn’t enough, Sarkar now plays his trump card, his next attempt to oust the people of Neecha Nagar: he orders the water supply to the settlement to be cut off.
Balraj, Yaqub chaacha and Rupa now come to the fore, trying their best to counter Sarkar’s underhanded ways of getting a hold on Neecha Nagar. They open a seva ghar (literally, a ‘service home’, or a ‘care home’), where they encourage their neighbours and other residents of Neecha Nagar to bring the sick. Yaqub chaacha treats them as best as he can, and Rupa, Balraj, and a couple of other friends pitch in to look after the invalids. “Don’t take your children to Sarkar’s hospital,” Balraj and Yaqub chaacha plead. “You’ll just be playing into his hands. We have to stand firm.”
Meanwhile, water has been cut off in Neecha Nagar. With not a sip to drink, what will happen to the people of this pathetic little township? Is there any hope for them? Will the municipality (or Sarkar) reconsider? Will Balraj and Yaqub chaacha finally realise that perhaps this passive, non-violent resistance isn’t the way to tackle a brute like Sarkar? What will happen to Neecha Nagar?
The beauty of Neecha Nagar is in that its story is very simple: a poor township tyrannised (though sugarcoated with supposed philanthropy) by a wealthy, greedy man. There are no complications, no subplots and comic side plots: just a simple, straightforward tale of wealth and power versus poverty and helplessness.
This being, after all, a Hindi film, there are songs, even two dances. But they’re short songs, and two of the most memorable ones are about rising and facing up to oppression. The dances, too, are strategically positioned at the start of the film, when Neecha Nagar is oblivious to the dangers that lurk in the near future.
There are also two romances. Or, (since Rupa’s love story comes to a sad end when Sagar turns his coat), one romance: that of Balraj and Maya. But, unlike the average Hindi film, this romance is very secondary to the main story. Balraj and Maya do not frolic in parks and sing songs; they don’t even spend much time saying loving things to each other.
Their love, instead, becomes part of the problem. Maya, while not approving of her father’s stance on Neecha Nagar, lacks the spine to actually do more than plead with him. [The fact that he tells her how much he’s invested in this project—and how he’ll be bankrupted if he retracts—is perhaps partly responsible].
If Maya finds herself torn between Balraj and her father, so too does Balraj find himself pulled in two directions.
Ultimately, this is a film where the central theme is just one. And there’s very little other than that: the drain that is going to drain life away from Neecha Nagar, giving Sarkar his victory.
Chetan Anand’s first venture resonates with the socialist influence of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Neecha Nagar (along with Dharti ke Lal, made in 1949, about the Bengal famine of 1943) was one of the earliest socialistic Hindi films to be made. It’s a good film, which deserves to be better known than it currently is.
What I liked about this film:
Chetan Anand’s direction. While watching Neecha Nagar, I was reminded repeatedly of Metropolis. There is, of course, a slight resemblance in storyline: rich/high versus poor/low (literally, since even in Metropolis, it is the downtrodden who live in the depths, while the wealthy and powerful inhabit the heights). As in Metropolis, in Neecha Nagar too there is the love story between individuals on the two opposite sides of the line that separates them.
But what really reminded me of Metropolis was Chetan Anand’s treatment of the film. The cinematography, and the way things are depicted (often metaphorically), is very effective. Sarkar, for instance.
Sarkar, when he is all-powerful, is always shown with the camera ‘looking up’ at him; as if he holds not just the municipality and the fate of Neecha Nagar in his hands, but everything else too: the all-powerful Sarkar (I’m assuming that name—‘sarkar’ literally means ‘government’ –was deliberate. Was it also indicative of the British that ruled India at the time?)
Then, there are the somewhat disgusting, yet proportionately impactful, scenes that show the plight of Neecha Nagar. A dead dog floating in the water. A boy, thirsty because the water supply has been stopped, bending towards a muddy puddle, pausing briefly—and then drinking from it.
And the climactic scene at the municipality’s meeting, when Maya arrives, is brilliant.
Lastly, another resemblance to Metropolis: the extreme close-ups.
Anand’s direction cannot be mentioned without also praising Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s script, based on the Hindi story Neecha Nagar by Hayatullah Ansari. The screenplay is crisp and succinct, not given to wandering off on tangents and introducing a lot of secondary plots and characters. Very forceful, without being terribly melodramatic.
Incidentally, Neecha Nagar also marked the debut, as music director, of Pandit Ravi Shankar. The film has about half a dozen songs, of which I especially liked three, not so much for just their music, but also for the lyrics and the contexts. One is a sad lullaby that Rupa sings to the sick children in the seva ghar—“Sona, o nanhi sona, ab na rona”; the other two—“Utho, ke humein waqt ki gardish ne pukaara,” and “Hum jhukenge, ji nahin,”—are revolutionary anthems.
And Rafi Peer’s portrayal of Sarkar is excellent.
What I didn’t like:
The slightly sloppy editing in a couple of places, where the narrative seems to jump from one frame to another. One particular instance is the scene where Maya goes to a restaurant and finds herself the butt of the passive hostility of the Neecha Nagar dwellers. This scene is interspersed with other goings-on elsewhere in the township, and the transitions between the restaurant and outside are abrupt.
Uma Anand’s diction. I didn’t have a problem with her acting, but her voice sounds a little too flat and toneless through most of the film. Rafiq Anwar isn’t much of an actor, either.
Those, however, are relatively minor when it comes to the overall effect of this film. Neecha Nagar is not flawless, but its strengths far outweigh what it may lack. A definite must-watch.
Note: At least two versions of the film are available on Youtube. I watched the version on the Rajshri channel; the video here turned out to be scratchy in places, and in a couple of scenes, the audio was pretty bad. Shemaroo Vintage too have it on their Youtube channel, and this version (going by its censor certificate) is a later, hopefully cleaned up, version.
Little bit of trivia: Rafiq Anwar (who played Balraj) was the father of Indian-born British film editor Tariq Anwar, who was nominated for an Oscar for The King’s Speech last year.