Master storyteller

May 10, 1946. An august gathering of filmmakers had assembled at the first ever Cannes Film Festival to showcase their works to an enlightened audience, which genuinely appreciated cinema. This panoramic city of France was just recovering from the disasters of World War II.

Sir David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan and David O Selznick — all were present to watch with keen interest, Brief Encounters, directed by Sir David Lean. Amongst them, almost unnoticed for his introvert nature, was a handsome, filmmaker from India. He was Chetan Anand, whose debut film Neecha Nagar was also to be screened in the competitive section.

Chetan Anand exuded a confidence which caught the notice of stalwarts of international cinema. On 12th May, Neecha Nagar was screened in a prestigious theatre of Cannes, which was packed with renowned filmmakers, critics and discerning viewers.

Everyone marveled at the anti-imperialist statement of Neecha Nagar, which was inspired by Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths. Though it was written jointly by K A Abbas and Hayatullah Ansari, the scenario and direction by Chetan Anand were the highlights of the film, along with excellent musical score by sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Indian cinema of the ‘40s was mainly escapist entertainment, which only catered to the box office. Chetan Anand’s occidental, oriental bent of mind was a product of his high-level refined education from Lahore Government College and training in the UK.

Chetan Anand, at a very tender age, went to visit his nationalist lawyer-father Pishorimal Anand at prison and developed a dislike towards dictatorial capitalism.

In England, where he went for higher studies and to compete for ICS Examinations, Chetan Anand vividly watched the works of Russian maestros, Sergei Eisenstein and Pudovkin, who influenced his mind and later, his works. His association with IPTA in Mumbai strengthened his leftist attitude and the seeds of Neecha Nagar were sown in his creative mind. He did not believe in merely entertaining with song and dance in his film, which he had dreamt of directing for two years.

Sir David Lean and David O Selznick sat up at the marvelous usage of dialectical montages used in a lyrical form of collages by cinematographer Vidyapati Ghosh, who was originally trained in Germany.

The 10-minute sequence was inspired by a script Sergei Eisenstein had asked his students of cinema to write, in the form of a chess play, based on Pushkin’s immortal poem Brazen Horseman. Only one student succeeded in writing the correct script. It reflected a language of cinema even unknown to Hollywood, then in its golden era. The usage of natural light and shade in the same sequence was also amazing in five close-ups.

When asked how he had created the cinematic landmark in his film, Vidyapati Ghosh confessed it was not at all his but Chetan Anand’s idea entirely. He had just executed, through his camera, what his director required. A spell-bound David Lean personally congratulated his junior Chetan Anand and stated that he had the potential to become a director of international calibre.

The cast of Neecha Nagar was mainly debutant, including Anwar, Kamini Kaushal and Uma Anand. Anwar migrated to Pakistan after partition. Kamini Kaushal later became a famous actress and Uma Anand proved her ability at penning scripts for later films of Chetan Anand. It was not an easy task for the new director to extract performances from his actors.

For the international version, Chetan Anand was intelligent enough to delete song and dance sequences, as he felt they marred the pace of a bold and objective film. The climax, shot fully outdoors with an entire lot of villagers moving in protest against the autocratic mayor with mashals in their hands, was a piece of cinematic genius, which had five close-ups and three mid-closes.

Neecha Nagar went on to win the coveted Grand Prix in 1946, jointly with Sir David Lean’s Brief Encounters. Back home, it was not a happy moment for the illustrious Chetan Anand. The film was released only in a few theatres in Punjab, New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. It flopped miserably as the typical entertainment-seeking Hindi film audience felt bored with the heavy theme and could not fathom the depths of it.

In Kolkata, it was released at Paradise Cinema and hailed by the intelligentsia. Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Subrata Mitra highly appreciated the film’s content and making. Satyajit Ray, Kamal Kumar Majumdar and Chidananda Das Gupta invited Chetan Anand to speak about the film’s making to an elite gathering of film lovers in their film society in 1948. Chetan Anand politely refused, stating he had never considered himself to be great enough to address such a luminous audience.

The sensitive filmmaker was the first ever to be invited as a jury member for the Cannes Film Festival in 1951. So shaken was he by the dismal reception of the film by his own country’s viewers that he also refused the prestigious offer.

The print of Neecha Nagar was missing for quite a long period. Ace cinematographer Subrata Mitra discovered the film print in a pathetic condition at a grocer’s shop in Kolkata and handed it over to the Information and Broadcast Ministry, who later submitted it for preservation as a cultural gem to the National Film Archives.

A reputed French television crew came to interview Chetan Anand in his shack in Juhu, Mumbai in 1996, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of Cannes Film Festival.

With tears in his eyes, Chetan Anand stated, “I was never able to create another Neecha Nagar. The below-average ambience of Hindi cinema robbed me of my creative potential and I could not carry on the trend I set with my first and most intimate film.” Chetan Anand directed about 16 films after Neecha Nagar.

They included Afsar, Taxi Driver, Hakeekat, Aakhri Khat and Heer Ranjha. None of his later films could match the sensitivity and creativity of his maiden venture.

In the centenary year of Indian cinema, Chetan Anand, on his 15th death anniversary on July 7, will be remembered as a highly imaginative filmmaker who did not receive due recognition in his own nation, but did garner international accolades for his first ever film, a feat only achieved a decade later by Satyajit Ray.

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