On the occasion of his centenary year, one of the India’s least-recognised filmmakers will find his place in the spotlight, with a mini retrospective at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (October 29-November 5). Despite making many landmark films that tackled a variety of subjects, including war, the problems with capitalism and a tragic love story written entirely in verse, Chetan Anand did not get his due as a director.

The eldest of three brothers in the Hindi film industry (the younger ones being Dev and Vijay), Chetan Anand graduated in English from Lahore’s Government Law College. He worked with the British Broadcasting Corporation in the United Kingdom, and also taught at Doon School in Dehradun before moving to Mumbai in the 1940s with a script for a biographical movie on emperor Ashoka. While the film didn’t take off, Anand got involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association before making his feature debut with Neecha Nagar in 1946.

Neecha Nagar is among four movies by Anand that will be screened at the Jio MAMI festival. We consider how they have held up over the years.

Neecha Nagar (1946)

This is the best debut that a director could have asked for. A version of the film that deleted a song and the many dance sequences won the Cannes Film Festival’s highest honour, the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, in 1946 – the first Indian film to do so.

Neecha Nagar is an early example of the social realistic movie. The story, highlighting the use of water as a weapon to control the poor, was born out of Anand’s IPTA leanings and has been scripted by another IPTA luminary, KA Abbas. The plot recalls Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths as well as Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis (1927), which represents the divided worlds of the rich and the poor as upper and lower levels.

By contemporary aesthetic and technical standards, Neecha Nagar appears dated in spite of its innovative elements borrowed from the theatre, visual flourishes, offbeat camera angles and effective use of montage. Kamini Kaushal makes a decent acting debut with a relatively restrained performance for the time. However, Rafique Anwar as the impoverished idealist hero and the director’s wife, Uma, in her only acting assignment as the hero’s wealthy lover, are flat and make no impact. Rafi Peer lives it up as the evil entrepreneur who’s out to make a fast buck at the expense of the Neecha Nagar residents.

Peer’s Westernised suited-booted character is called Sarkar (government). The movie includes a key song in which the poor unite and sing Utho Ki Humein Waqt Ki Gardish Ne Pukara (Awaken as the time of reckoning beckons us), alluding, no doubt, towards British rule (the movie was made a year before Independence). The “Sarkar” may have changed, but the message continues to have resonance.

Taxi Driver (1954)
Chetan Anand’s first big commercial success was a family affair. He directed his brother Dev in one of his better-known roles as a Mumbai cabbie; the screenplay was written by his other brother Vijay and wife Uma; the lead actress was Anand’s future wife, Kalpana Kartik. All this talent huddled together under the Anand family banner, Navketan. Yet, it is the outsider, Sheila Ramani, who made a major impact as Anglo-Indian dancer Sylvie. Ramani suitably sizzles while also creating empathy for the good-hearted girl who is not destined to bag the hero.

The song Dil Se Milaake.

Although classified as a crime thriller, Taxi Driver’s crime plot is secondary to the noir elements that inform the world of the hero, such as his hangout den and the dancer and small-time hoods who inhabit it. The film scores with V Ratra’s evocative cinematography, which delicately balances light and shade, SD Burman’s winning score, and the beautifully controlled outdoor sequences, which were filmed at iconic locations in Mumbai. The city becomes an important character in the movie, and is described as such as in the opening credits.

Haqeeqat (1964)

Haqeeqat is one of the earliest war movies to be made in India and it retains its definitive status all these years later. Set during the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the movie is an honest and compassionate look at the reversals suffered by India on the battlefield.

Shot mostly on location in Ladakh with a few indoor sequences on matching sets created by MS Sathyu, Anand’s screenplay fleshes out the smallest of characters. He delves into the back stories of the soldiers and their women who are anxiously awaiting their return from the front. Haqeeqat’s influence on JP Dutta’s war-themed blockbuster, Border (1997), is considerable.

The movie is aided by a fine ensemble cast, including Balraj Sahni, Dharmendra, Jayant, Sudhir, Sanjay Khan, Mac Mohan, Bhupinder, Johnny Bakshi, and Rakesh Kumar. The movie also launched Priya Rajvansh, who would be a regular lead actor in all of Anand’s subsequent films.

Although a war movie, Haqeeqat has a noteworthy score by Madan Mohan, including Hoke Majboor Mujhe Usne Bhulaya Hoga, which is sung by the fatigued soldiers, and the hair-raising Kar Chale Hum Fida. Written by Kaifi Azmi and juxtaposed with dramatic orchestration and Mohammed Rafi’s emotion-filled voice, the track beautifully evokes the pathos and destruction caused by war.

Anand revisited the war genre in Hindustan Ki Kasam in 1973 with far less impact, which proves that a masterpiece like Haqeeqat occurs once in a lifetime.

Heer Ranjha (1970)

Anand’s first film in colour is among his best-known works, but its real star is Kaifi Azmi. Apart from the song lyrics, the poet also wrote the dialogue, which is entirely in verse.

Still, there is enough of the Chetan Anand touch in his inspired version of the tragic romance between Heer and Ranjha. For instance, Anand avoids using the colour yellow entirely until the scene that marks the beginning of a spring festival. The screen is filled with women dressed in yellow to dazzling effect. Anand had worked out the movie’s colour palette a year before he began filming.

Raaj Kumar’s mannered performance and dialogue delivery do not work, while Priya Rajvansh is as stiff as ever, but the ensemble cast makes up for their inadequacies. Madan Mohan’s music is a definite asset.