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This Little Known Gem Is the Only Indian Film to Have Won the Highest Honour at Cannes Film Fest

In its debut year, Cannes Film Festival awarded its highest prize to two movies. One of them was an Indian film whose language of resistance remains relevant till date

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The prestigious Cannes Film Festival, currently making news in India primarily for the sartorial choices of Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor on the red carpet, is a cinematic event whose history has consistently demonstrated its commitment to courageous film-making.

Take for instance, the 2016 winner of Palme d’Or (the highest honor at Cannes), Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake which was a scathing critique of the benefits system crippled by the Tory Government in the UK is a testament to the fact. So does the screening of films from directors like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof who have been sentenced to prison for their films of dissent.

It isn’t surprising then that in the debut year of Cannes in 1946, the Palme d’Or for Best Film—then known as the Grand Prix—was won by an Indian film that spoke against the imperialist and industrial values of British Raj, without uttering the said term even once.

Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar remains relevant in today’s times, as people across the world seek ways to resist the surge of authoritarian governments.

Cannes
Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946) won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival’s debut year

Neecha Nagar narrates the story of a village facing imminent danger of its water resources getting polluted. An industrialist named Sarkar (Rafi Peer) plans to divert a stream of polluted water through the village to clear up a land on which he has made huge investments. Balraj (Rafiq Anwar), a college educated member of the village, leads the resistance and is joined by Sarkar’s daughter Maya (Uma Anand), a classmate of Balraj. The film ends with a victory for the villagers, though many sacrifices are made including Balraj’s own sister, Rupa, played by debutanate Kamini Kaushal.

It is significant that during the 1940s, in the midst of the freedom struggle, Indian movies were responding to relevant social issues of the time. It was the same decade when Gandhi and Nehru became the figureheads of the movement. Hence, author Gautam Chintamani’s observation that college-educated leader of the villagers was “modelled after Nehru” is accurate. So is his observation that “Sarkar” represents the British Raj, if the name itself failed to let you in on the secret.

The character of Maya serves as a link between the rich and the poor, is a realisation of the common template seen in the era’s social realist films.

Uma Anand
Uma Anand as Maya, daughter of Sarkar.

However, Neecha Nagar stands apart not for content but for the treatment of its formal structure. Though the film was based on a story by Hayatullah Ansari, that was inspired by Russian playwright Maxim Gorky’s masterpiece The Lower Depths, it is more expressionist than its socialist realism source. The camera movements, clever use of lightning and montage techniques as well as the heavy use of symbolism makes Neecha Nagar distinct from other films of the decade.

The first time we are introduced to Sarkar, he is framed with a sinister looking figure in the frame, to which the profile of Sarkar dissolves. When villagers arrive at his doorstep for negotiation, he is right in the middle of a frame sitting in front of a large painting on the wall, of a skeletal figure hidden behind a wave of white curtain with only its hand and a eye visible, as if it is secretly observing the unfolding scene.

As Sarkar exits the scene, the camera pans and zooms into the painting, as if to make sure the audience has caught its significance.

Rafi Peer as Sarkar with the painting looming above his head

The symbol of the painting becomes clearer, when its single eye seems to move in the last scene, to which Sarkar responds in a horrified “Shall I leave?” and collapses on the floor. The film abounds in symbols and metaphors, from Balraj using a torchlight (mashaal) to light the lamps intercut with people boycotting the hospital by taking back their sick children from the beds, to the use of an image of a vulture whenever Sarkar appears.

Clearly influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s montage techniques to build meaning, Chetan Anand takes the film to new aesthetic heights in Indian cinema. The one scene where the polluted sludge is entering the village that is beautifully cut with scenes of distraught animals, and full-length images of the villagers against a dark background, testifies to the genius of the director.

Viewed through Marxist lens, it is a film about the struggle of haves and have-nots, the revolt of the poor against the rich. It also espouses the anarchist values of mutual aid, non-hierarchical form of functioning and rejection of the state/system which often coincides with Gandhian idea of decentralisation.More overtly, Gandhian ideals such as the romanticisation of village life, women emancipation and Hindu-Muslim unity is treated as a given in the film: women like Rupa are equal participants in the resistance along with men.

Her death becomes the final impetus needed to mobilise the workers.

Kamini Kaushal
Kamini Kaushal as Rupa and Rafiq Anwar as Balraj in final embrace, minutes before the former’s death

It isn’t a co-incidence that if a seven-decade-old film’s story reminds you of the water crisis at Flint, Michigan or closer home, the Endosulfan tragedy of Kasargod in Kerala and Karnataka. The reality we are living in has many similarities with the reality of the people of Neecha Nagar. However, the optimistic ending of the movie gives us hope that a powerful resistance against the status-quo can indeed be productive.

All pictures: Youtube

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Written by Amulya B

Always caught between multiple worlds of her own creation, Amulya believes in the transformative power of literary & performative arts. If not caught worrying over what her next read is going to be, she can be found amid Bengaluru Traffic shouting at fellow commuters.