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The pioneering films of Chetan Anand – Centenary special

Strangely, the visionary filmmaker and his work have not received the prominence that they deserve.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

What do the first Indian film to win the Grand Prix (Best Film) at Cannes (Neecha Nagar, 1946), the first war film in Hindi (Haqeeqat, 1964), and the only film to have its entire dialogue in verse (Heer Raanjha, 1970), have in common? They are all the pioneering works of visionary filmmaker Chetan Anand.

Son of freedom fighter and advocate Pishorimal Anand, Chetan Anand was the eldest of three brothers, the others being Dev Anand and Vijay Anand. While a teacher at the famous residential Doon School, Chetan Anand started writing plays. He eventually came to Bombay looking for a producer who would direct his play and thus ventured into acting, playing the lead in the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) production of Zubeida, directed by Balraj Sahni and written by KA Abbas. Filmmaker Phani Mazumdar was impressed by his performance and cast him opposite Nargis in the unreleased film Rajkumar (1944).

However, acting did not capture Chetan Anand's imagination. He was more keen to make a film. This was the time when raw film stock was rationed and producers could only make three films a year under licence. However, three licences were issued- to IPTA, Chetan Anand and legendary dancer Pandit Uday Shankar. IPTA produced Dharti Ke Lal (1946) which marked Abbas's debut as director. Chetan Anand made his own directorial debut with Neecha Nagar and Uday Shankar with Kalpana (1948).

Neecha Nagar at Habitat Film Festival: The lowly film that won Cannes over

Inspired by Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths, the social realist film was written by Abbas and marked the debut of Uday Shankar's younger brother, the sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, as composer. In the film, the carefully plotted demolition of a rural space makes way for a sprawling city, which is almost prophetic in its depiction of land-grabbing real-estate agents preying on the less fortunate. It went on to win the grand prize at Cannes in 1946 jointly with David Lean’s Brief Encounters.

Neecha Nagar was appreciated across the world but did not find many takers back home. However, it remains a landmark film for its use of German Expressionism and cinematography.

In 1949, Chetan set up Navketan Productions with brother Dev Anand, then a rising star, and made their first film, Afsar (1950). Starring Dev Anand and Suraiya, the film did not fare well at the box office.

This was followed by Aandhiyan (1952), which travelled to prestigious international film festivals, and Taxi Driver (1954), which was a huge success.

By then differences between the brothers were growing and Funtoosh (1956) marked their last film together under the Navketan banner.

Writing about the importance of Navketan and their films, Professor Ranjani Mazumdar has said, “A world of crime, the city, the adventures of modern life and a cosmopolitan world view emerged in the Navketan films. In contrast to the perceived and often cited euphoric nationalism or disaffection with the nation that marked 1950s cinema, the Navketan films were embarking on a different kind of spatial imagination.” The films, in both content and aesthetic, marked a departure from the dominant narratives of the 1950s. Chetan Anand continued this experimentation in his later work.

In 1957, he made Anjali, exploring legends from Buddhism, and starred in the film as well. The French filmmaker, Francois Truffaut, is believed to have requested for a print of this film for his personal collection.

Haqeeqat (1964) marked the first realistic portrayal of war in Hindi cinema. Offering the soldier’s point of view from the battlefield, the film was based on an incident that took place during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Described by the director as being a mosaic rather than a film, it focused on the ordinary soldier, facing the grim reality of war, instilling a sense of patriotism and propaganda. With Madan Mohan’s melodies and Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics, the film captured the hearts of the nation and remains arguably one of the best war films in Hindi cinema.

Dharmendra in a scene from Haqeeqat (1964)

The multi-starrer film was followed by a small-budget experimental film, Aakhri Khat (1966), which proved the filmmaker's continuing excitement to work with newer, inspiring material, without a care for conventional cinema. Inspired by Abbas’s film Munna (1954), Chetan Anand’s film featured a child wandering the streets in a city, in search of his mother. With sparse dialogues and action, it is a stark comment on the apathy of the city and its inhabitants. Though the film is noted for the debut of superstar-to-be Rajesh Khanna, it focuses on the child for the most part and Polish master Andrzej Wajda marvelled at Anand’s ability to film the child in a real setting.

50 years of Heer Raanjha: Chetan Anand's definitive adaptation of the love ballad is sheer poetry on screen

In 1970, Anand picked up the popular ballad from Punjab and Waris Shah's tragic story of lovers, Heer Ranjha. Though many versions of the film had already been made, in the hands of Chetan Anand, who also wrote the screenplay, the ballad was brought to life.

In keeping with his constant experimentation, this was his first film in colour, coming long after colour had become the norm in Hindi cinema, and also the first Hindi film where all the dialogues were written in verse. The poet Kaifi Azmi undertook this remarkable feat, the only one of its kind in Hindi cinema.

The use of verse lends the story a lyrical quality, akin to the original ballad. Starring Raaj Kumar and Priya Rajvansh as the star-crossed lovers, this was also the producer-director's biggest commercial success.

Writing about the bond between Azmi and Anand, the poet's daughter, legendary actress Shabana Azmi, said in an interview, “Abba’s deepest rapport was with producer-director Chetan Anand. And I feel they both did some of their finest work with each other. I remember watching the two together — Chetan saheb would quietly come and pull up a chair next to my father’s. He would be constantly twirling his car keys in one hand. They would sit for a couple of hours and during that time there would be the barest exchange of words between them. It was almost through a process of osmosis that their songs happened.”

The reclusive filmmaker also made Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973), Sahib Bahadur (1977) and Kudrat (1981) but none of these films could recreate the magic of his preceding work. His love for the theme of war manifested itself in the popular TV series Param Veer Chakra (1988), which was telecast on the public broadcaster Doordarshan and narrated the stories of soldiers who had been awarded the highest military honour for acts of bravery in war.

Looking back at his oeuvre, one wonders why Anand’s name scarcely finds mention in the ‘golden’ decade of Hindi cinema, the 1950s, which is usually associated with the works of filmmakers Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan. Despite his several honours and achievements, the contemporary relevance of his landmark films, and his enduring imprint on Hindi cinema, somehow his films are not celebrated as much they deserve to be.