With Anurag Kashyap's Kennedy receiving a standing ovation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and FTII alumnus Yudhajit Basu’s Marathi short film Nehemich competing for the Short Film Palme D’Or, Indians are yet again having their moment at the French celebration of global cinema.
First film poster Cannes Film Festival, 1946. #CannesFilmFestival #Cannes2016 #RedCarpet pic.twitter.com/On7cQFtRE8— Cinetree.nl (@cinetree) May 13, 2016
Compared to a conventional awards ceremony like Oscars, India has enjoyed greater visibility at Cannes. After all, this is the festival where Kashyap managed to make a global audience sit through his five-hour-long original cut of Gangs of Wasseypur and reward him with a standing ovation.
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Screenings and premieres aside, Indian films have also managed to win some top awards at Cannes. Satyajit Ray’s magnum opus Pather Panchali bagged Best Human Document Award back in 1956 while both Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Kanu Behl’s Titli were awarded the Camera D’Or (Cannes’ award for best directorial debuts).
When Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan premiered in the Un Certain Regard section in 2015, it also won the FIPRESCI Prize, an award that is decided by an international federation of critics. A more recent example is Shaunak Sen’s Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes which won the best documentary award Golden Eye last year.
But coming to the coveted Palme D’Or AKA the Best Feature Film at Cannes, many Indian films have made it to the final nominee list (Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, Mrinal Sen’s Kharij, Satyajit Ray’s Parash Patthar, MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa), there is only one Indian film that managed to win the top prize. Incidentally, this victory was achieved in 1946, the very first edition of Cannes.
The 1946 Hindi-language drama Neecha Nagar is largely attributed as the first and only Indian Palme D’Or winner but it wasn’t alone. As this was the inaugural edition, the rules at Cannes were way different than present day. Currently, the three best feature films at Cannes are ranked in the descending order of Palme D’Or, Grand Prix and Jury Prize.
The poster for the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946 shows a movie camera with film made up of international flags. pic.twitter.com/8MIkxOmYpi— David Neary (@DeusExCinema) February 24, 2015
But the situation was different back then, with the top award's name being quite a mouthful. The so-called “Grand Prix du Festival International du Film” was shared among eleven films including winners from Mexico, the erstwhile Soviet Union, UK, Switzerland, US, France, Denmark, Italy and Sweden. Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (which literally translates to “Lowly City”) was one of the winners, marking the only time India could ever bag a Palme D’Or.
Neecha Nagar was helmed by Chetan Anand AKA the older brother of Bollywood’s evergreen star Dev Anand. Despite Anand winning the Cannes top prize, Neecha Nagar remains only a footnote if one analyses his domestic career. He is much more renowned for founding the production house Navketan Films with his brother.
While Neecha Nagar was his directorial debut, Anand enjoyed better success with Dev Anand-starrers like Taxi Driver (1954), Funtoosh (1956) and the Dharmendra-led war epic Haqeeqat (1964).
As for the cast of Neecha Nagar, the drama was fronted by Anand’s own wife Uma Anand (her only acting credit other than Taxi Driver) and then-debutant Kamini Kaushal (who would later become a lead heroine up till the 1960s). Even character actor Murad (Zeenat Aman’s uncle) had a brief role along with a much-younger Zohra Sehgal (the Padma Shri-winning theater veteran who also appeared in films like Dil Se, Bend It Like Beckham, Veer-Zara).
The sitar, tabla and flute-heavy score was composed by Grammy-winning maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. With Neecha Nagar marking his debut as a film composer, he would gain further recognition for scoring some of Satyajit Ray’s classics.
Before screenwriter Khwaja Ahmas Abbas wrote Raj Kapoor classics like Awaara and Shree 420, one of his earliest gigs was to write Neecha Nagar. Abbas’s script was adapted from Hayatullah Ansari’s short story of the same name. Ansari himself was heavily inspired by Russian legend Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths.
Devoid of an eventful plot, Gorky’s plays focused more on character-building than any plot twists. A shabby lodging house in Volga serves as the setting with members of the lower social class introspecting on their unfortunate situations. The play’s pessimistic overtones and social commentary on the social class divide made their way into Anand’s Neecha Nagar in a more Indianised context.
Set between an uber-rich locality and a dilapidated one, the plot revolves around a plan by a wealthy real estate developer Sarkar who becomes a major threat for the residents of Neecha Nagar after he plans to divert a sewage drain into their neighbourhood. With Sarkar eventually planning to destroy Neecha Nagar as a whole to build more buildings, the residents of Neecha Nagar must shed their cynicism on life and unite together to stand against the so-called Ooncha Nagar (“upper neighbourhood”).
The premise might come off as preachy and cliched for modern viewers but in its time, Neecha Nagar was unique in terms of its take on social realities. Today, it is considered as one of the earliest socialist films in the country and one of the progenitors of parallel Indian cinema that would reach new heights in the 1950s.
A fantastic poster of Neecha Nagar (1946) from an old Filmindia magazine! pic.twitter.com/rorbIsXYYC— Karan Bali (@karanbali) March 13, 2017
With Neecha Nagar eyeing a 1946 release date, India was on its way to attain freedom but the question was: at what cost? Would the oppressed still be able to enjoy this freedom? Neecha Nagar attempted to open the space for such questions.
Sadly, the film never made it to Indian screens. And only a white-dominated jury at Cannes could indulge in its philosophical discourse.
While there is no official reason behind Neecha Nagar not releasing in India, it is highly possible that the last strands of British bureaucracy would have interfered. As media censorship of even slightly revolutionary content was quite common in the British Raj, it is possible that Anand’s anti-imperial drama against the aristocracy might have rubbed a few Brits the wrong way (even though they would pack their bags for home a year later).
Another reason might stem from the fact that Neecha Nagar was ultimately an independent film (or “indie” as the modern cinephile would call it). Before Anand could set up Navketan, Neecha Nagar was his own low-budget indie debut that was made only because of finance that he could secure from the film’s sole two producers Rashid Anwar and A Halim.
The film received a limited screening in Kolkata in 1948 with Bengali auteur Mrinal Sen also being one of the attendees. Legend has it that the Bhuvan Shome and Ek Din Pratidin filmmaker was moved to tears and awed by the film’s 20-minute-long montage towards its end. Sen would obviously go on to craft his own arthouse features with healthy doses of social realism, much like what Anand explored throughout Neecha Nagar.
The 104-minute-long drama has thankfully been preserved in archives over the years and is now in public domain. Old Bollywood enthusiasts can stream the black-and-white feature legally for free on YouTube with distributors like Eagle Classic Movies and Zee Music Company uploading Anand’s Cannes winner in its full glory.