Neecha Nagar (1946)
Director: Chetan Anand; Writer: Hyatullah Ansari; Producer: Rashid Anwar; Cinematographer: Vidyapati Ghosh; Editor: N.R. Chauhan; Cast: Rafiq Anwar, Uma Anand, Rafi Peer, Kamini Kaushal, Hamid Butt, S.P. Bhatia, Mohan Segal, Zohra Segal, Prem Kumar, Vyas
Duration: 01:40:41; Aspect Ratio: 1.315:1; Lightness: 0.172; Volume: 0.344; Cuts per Minute: 38.914; Words per Minute: 46.830
Summary: Chetan Anand’s IPTA-supported film loosely adapted from Gorky’s classic forms a trio with Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal and Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (both 1946). Class division is signified by a rich landowner (Rafi Peer) who lives on a mountain while the poor starve in the ‘Neecha Nagar’, a village in the valley below. The landowner’s sewage flows around the poor people’s huts, spreading disease. Eventually the rich man dies in a long- drawn-out heart attack. Anand’s debut featured several judgemental high- and low-angled shots, sacrificing realism for quasi-expressionist emotional intensity. This film and Dharti Ke Lal mark Ravi Shankar’s debut as film composer.
The Cannes Grand Prix Certificate:one of its major claims to fame at the time.
"When this film was sent to France for the International Film Festival, it contained one song less and no dances."
Advertisement announcing the 'public auction' of Neecha Nagar in Bombay (Times of India, Dec 10, 1947)
One of the most astonishing aspects of all the 'realist' films of this period was their strong presence of dance. the overdetermined presence of the Uday Shankar-inspired dance ballet is evidenced in both Dharti ke Lal's dances by Shanti Bardhan, and Neecha Nagar's dances choreographed by Zohra Segal. Here, the dancers are Roma Ghosh (by some accounts the same as Ruma Ganguly, who married Kishore Kumar) and Gopa Lal. Both were members of the original Prithvi Theatres.
C.S. Lakshmi's interview with Zohra Segal's work as dance director in cinema (in Mirrors and Gestures: Conversations with Women Dancers
[Zohra] As the Zohresh Dance Institute in Lahore drew to a close,"...this beautiful sister of mine, Uzra Butt, who was already Prithviraj's leading lady contacted me at this time. Prithviraj Kapoor had just started a theatre, a year earlier. And my sister wrote and said, 'Why don't you come to Bombay and try your luck here, in films?' So, both my husband and I went to Bombay to try our luck as dancers. But the films there were so awful. The type of things I was expected to do--in one, the director came and said, 'Look there is a big bowl of roses and you come out of it in a bathing costume.' (Laughter) Uday Shankar's training was such that even parts of our body, our stomach or midriff, could not be seen. We had always worn churidar-pyjamas under our skirts. We didn't always cover the head. It depended on the type of dance, but his approach was very, very proper."
[C.S. Lakshmi] "For how many films did you do dance direction?"
[Zohra] "Well, not very many, about nine or ten in all. Baazi became a hit. Also for Nau Do Gyarah, C.I.D., Faraar, not this recent Faraar but another. Faraar made with Ashok Kumar, and Heer Ranjha. I have forgotten. It was so long ago."
[C.S. Lakshmi] "What was your experience of being a dance director in the male-dominated film world?"
[Zohra] "I didn't really like it. Not so much because it was male-dominated but because you had to, more or less, cater to what the director wanted except perhaps for Guru Dutt's films like Baazi. He had been my pupil in Almora when I was teaching. So he knew the technique of Uday Shankar and he liked it. That's why he asked me to come. So, I had no problem with him because he knew my style and he let me do whatever I wanted. But with other directors, you know, they had their own emphasis on the box-office and sex and it went against my grain and my upbringing..."
The fight between the villagers and the representatives of the evil Mr. Sarkar. Several key characters of the film are introduced here - Balaraj (the film's lead, played by Rafi Anwar in ths debut), Yakoob Chacha (Hamid Butt), Sagar (S.P. Bhatia) who will eventually be the betrayer, Aziz. One of the more startling aspects of the sound here is that it seems to be entirely location sound.
Introduction of the evil Mr. Sarkar (Rafi Peer). The plan to divert the sewage canal from the valley and into the Lower Depths is outlined here, and also Maya's (Uma Anand's) complicity with the plot. Shot almost throughout the film in low angle, with a curious primitive icon and an abstract oil painting that defines Sarkar's interior space. This space will appear throughout the film, and almost certainly reveals German expressionist influence. Again the dialogue appears to have been recorded on location.
The townsfolk from the Lower Depths, the village/slum downstream from the valley, who will suffer with the redirection of the sewage canal, come to meet Sarkar. Sagar is already established as a potentially corrupt backslider.
The first public introduction of Sarkar, in his classic pose: low-angle, frontal, with the oil painting behind him. His nefarious plans to buy the villagers over with cheap cigars and corruption are established. Note the constant frontal address, and the sequence ending on the painting. A possible influence of P.C. Barua here as well!
Second dance with Zohra Segal's choreography by Roma Ghosh and Gopa Lal.
Introduction of the key female lead: Roopa (Kamini Kaushal in her first major screen role), sister of Balaraj, with her other brother and his wife (Zohra Segal). This is the middle-class domesticity that - along with the sylvan land that the two songs already show us - will be disrupted by the conflict to follow.
The two love stories, one of which will remain unrealized - between Roopa and Sagar, and the between Balaraj and Sarkar's daughter Maya. This is also the only sequence that gives the otherwise morally unjustifiable acts of the turncoat Sagar some justification.
Sagar sells out. He falls a prey to the temptations of Sarkar, and agrees to betray his community. Sarkar's unremitting villainy further revealed.
Maya's short reverie, in which she recalls her brief relationship with Balaram. The only time the film goes into flashback.
Sagar's betrayal is known: Balaraj throws him out of the house and goes to confront Sagar.
you have nothing to worry
Roopa's character reveals the future turn her character will take. Sagar's perfidy also means the end of their relationship: and she has to pay the direct cost. He says he has done whatever he did - to sell out to Sarkar - only because he wanted a life of luxury for Roopa. In turning away she rejects that temptation.
The first confrontation between Balaraj and Sarkar. Sarkar's villainy further revealed. Low-angle shots of Sarkar continue. The sequence ends with a remarkable dissolve, as Sarkar's face dissolves onto the filthy slush of the sewage drain that is re-laid to go through the Lower Depths.....
The only documentary shots the film uses. The village descends into becoming a slum, the sludge passes through it, the people are deep in the muck, and we see carrion and vultures. The intercutting of the shot of the vulture with that of Mr. Sarkar further underscores the expressionism.
Sarkar sends two telegrams to two agents, in Bombay and Calcutta, asking that Rs 90 lakhs be raised - on loan, presumably - immediately. The reference is to Bombay and Calcutta-based financiers.
First of the film's revolutionary songs: Utho ki hame waqt ki gardish ne pukara - written by Vishwamitter Adil. It is astonishing to see the nationalist-socialist picturization, with the map of India.
Continuing the closed low-angle high-ceiling expressionist Kammerspielfilm effect: Sarkar (also meaning Government) speaking to the members of the Municipality, all of whom he has hired for their job.
Sarkar proposes his plan to shut the water off to the Lower Depths.
The disease spreads through the town: the absence of all water leads to new problems. This is now the second move in the gradual elevation of Roopa's heroic character to iconic levels.
Roopa goes home to get whatever little water there is - but her sister-in-law obstructs her and the pot is broken. A long montage sequence follows as the absence of water creates near famine-like conditions.
Kab tak gehri raat rahegi: the search for water, and the tragic high point of the people of the Lower Depths. The hillside shots, the song picturised on Roopa as the men sit disconsolately make for a very moving sequence.
The juxtaposition of the vulture upon the close-up of the face of Mr. Sarkar is repeated. The second trick by the capitalist. Balaraj confronts Maya, who in turn confronts her father. He decides on the spot to play his next card, which is to start a hospital for the poor of the Lower Depths. The presence of the decadent Rajkumar who sorts this out in the end, recalls the other moments of decadent royalty amidst the elites of Wartime India: the most famous being the Rajkumar of Piplinagar (Shri 420), and the decadent Maharajahs in the audience in Uday Shankar's Kalpana.
The hospital is set up and is immediately overrun with the sick. The wards get filled in no time.
A major and key political discussion: the realization that there will continue to be sickness as long as the drain exists. That the hospital is in a curious way part of the problem, not part of the solution. The hospital is itself not vilified: but unless the source of the illness is dealt with, merely treating the ill is not sufficient.
How to explain such a complicated point to the people? How to ask the sick not to go to the hospital for a political cause that might take their lives? It is rare - perhaps unique - for a Hindi film to present such a complex ethical problem before its audience.
The political decision splits apart Balaraj's family, when his niece falls sick, and her parents insist on taking her to the hospital. This becomes now rather complicated the ethical pivot of the film. It is also the moment when Roopa fully joins the political movement.
The building of the Seva Ghar: the villagers' alternative to the hospital. The gradual conversion of both Balaraj and Roopa into Gandhian political leadership begins.
Explicit reference to the charkha - very similar to the reference in Dharti Ke Lal with Tripti Bhaduri. Balaraj's statement that 'only women can teach the true meaning of sacrifice. (After this he throws away his cigarette case).-
See above for the related sequence in Dharti Ke Lal:
Roopa's finale. The political movement gradually spreads, as does the work of the Seva Ghar. Roopa is now its key figure, making food, offering help and succour to the ill. Yakoob Chacha gently hints to her that she should not be overly encouraging because the portents are not good: these people will die.
Roopa's finale: the So Na o Nanhi lullaby
Roopa's death: she herself falls ill, the sister-in-law and others urge that she be taken the the hospital. Balaraj wavers. Roopa herself however is adamant. She finally sacrifices her life to the political cause.
In another expressionist stage setting, Sagar tries to incite people into asking what sacrifice Balaraj has made, that Balaraj's own niece had been admitted to the hospital that he was asking everyone to boycott. A revolt happens, people go to Balaraj asking him for his sacrifice. The contrast between the interiors of Sagar's space and the public gathering outside shown in top-angle is marked.
Roopa's final martyrdom also finally rallies the people. They confront Balaraj, who shows them her dead body.
The fire that Roopa's death will begin. This sequence begins with the mourning - Sagar especially mourns the loss of his beloved - which gradually culminates in the funeral fire, and arouses the people into militant action.
She gave her life, in boycotting the hospital. The metaphor of the flame continues. An old flame dies, a new one will be born. The second of the three militant IPTA-type songs in the film: Ek Purani Jyot Bujhi Hai, Ek Nirali Jyot Jagi Hai.
Maya is distraught but Mr. Sarkar stands firm.
Balaraj now rises to nationalist leadership: wearing his cap, standing next to a flame and in front of a map of India, he addresses the people. The mass boycott of the hospital is agreed to by all.
The film's trickiest ethical problem: the boycott of the hospital is now complete. At no point are the hospital staff shown as doing anything but their duty: the treatment is always commended - the reference to a curiously Gandhian anti-modernity politics asking people to boycott the hospital and to die is maintained, as in the patient who tells the nurse. Roopa has taught us how to die, but that is perhaps beyond your understanding'.
Coffee House gossip: the people from the Lower Depths have arisen, the boycott of the hospital is complete. The direct vilification of the Sarkar family now begins.
Maya's social boycott is intercut with Sarkar's meeting with the peple of the Municipality. The Coffee House people confront her. Sarkar meanwhile only grows in his magnificent evil: the people on the Board are reminded that they were nobodies, that he is solely responsible for whatever they had.
The film's most direct reference to its expressionist legacy (by one theorist, direct reference to Metropolis. The solitude of both Maya and her father are shown mostly without dialogue. The curious statue - a mix of Rodin and some primitive object - completes the reference. Mr. Sarkar's resolve - 'I will finish Bajaraj' - is doubly strengthened, as is Maya's ambivalence. One crucial reference here is to Mr. Sarkar's financial debts: to the fact that he would be financially ruined if he budged.
Third of the three militant IPTA-type marching songs in the film: Hum jhukenge, ji nahin, intercut with Mr. Sarkar's growing solitude.
Maya and Balaraj - she makes a last effort to seduce him with memories of their past, in College. She agrees with their politics, but wants Balaraj to understand her father's condition. He 'remembers nothing': he is now a fully political animal. Maya, unable to get Balaraj to come round, returns and on the way falls into the filthy gutter.
The climactic Municipality meeting. Efforts to fix the meeting and the vote are finally ruined by a mud-stained Maya making her final speech, which swings the vote the way of the people. Maya also declares publicly her desire to marry Balaraj.
Sarkar's death: the expressionist symbols, amid closed high-ceilinged interiors, intercut with the union of Maya and Balaraj and the triumph of the people.