Those of you who have watched Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds or Giuseppe Tornatore's Nuovo Cinema Paradiso would recall how integral to the plot were the use of reels and projection rooms. In Inglourious Basterds, the character Shoshanna played by the versatile Melanie Laurent uses the nitrate reels to burn down an entire cinema hall to assassinate Adolf Hitler, while in Cinema Paradiso, the character Alfredo played by Philippe Noiret loses his eyesight in the mishap triggered by the combustible nitrate reels.

Inflammable and difficult to douse

Despite the availability of the relatively safer acetate reels since 1908, auteurs preferred nitrate films. This despite the fact that these reels were highly inflammable, difficult to douse, and could even burn underwater. This state of affair continued till 1951 when nitrate reels were finally supplanted by acetate reels.

Now, a brief digression into the terrain of biology and chemistry before we build up our story. In 1838, French chemist Anselme Payen isolated a vital structural component of the primary cell wall of green plants, and named it Cellulose. This discovery revolutionised the arms and ammunition race, leading to the manufacturing of gun-cotton and dynamite, and also plastic industry. Plastic was known as a forming material, which could be heated up, cooled down and given any form.

In 1862, a British inventor patented his version of thermoplastic that involved the mixing of nitric acid to cellulose in the presence of a solvent. He called his invention Parkesine. Later in the 1860s, US based Hyatt brothers bought the rights to Parkesine and began developing their own version of thermoplastics to replace ivory as the primary raw material in the manufacturing of billiards balls. They patented their discovery as Celluloid in 1872. This formed the base for the first nitrate films manufactured by Eastman Kodak in 1889. As celluloid remained the fundamental ingredient in film manufacturing, the reels came to be interchangeably called celluloid. And, that's how cinema came to be called celluloid.

Meanwhile in India

In the late 1950s or early the 1960s, a bespectacled man was strolling through the dingy bylanes of a scrap market in Kolkata. He stopped by at a dealer's place, where tins of rotting reels were accumulating. While sifting through the collection, he came across a set of reels that seemed promising. His trained eyes jumped to attention when he realized what he was holding. Could it be true? If he was indeed holding what he thought was, it meant a great find, for he knew that the negatives of the film in his hands had been destroyed in a fire, and the spare reels had been taken to Pakistan after partition. India did not have a copy of the most critically acclaimed piece of art coming from its tinsel town. He immediately paid the scrap dealer `100 and bought the reels. If it were not for this chance encounter, the scrap dealer would have burnt the reels to collect the residual silver.

The great find

The bespectacled man was Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer friend of Satyajit Ray. Subrata Mitra had helmed the camera for Ray's Pather Panchali, and is credited with pioneering the camera art of bounce lighting. Mitra was ecstatic on realizing the value of his find. He contacted the National Film Archives and deposited the reels with them. The reels belonged to the Chetan Anand directed Neecha Nagar, the only Indian film till date to have won the Grand Prix or as it is known today Palm d'Or at the International Cannes Film Festival. And, Neecha Nagar happens to be the film that inspired Satyajit Ray to take up directing seriously. Incidentally, it was Neecha Nagar that sent Ray to the sets of Jean Renoir's The River, where he met Subrata Mitra. But, that's a story for another time.

Neecha Nagar was the debut of director Chetan Anand, the elder brother of Dev Anand. This also was the debut of a majority of actors, including Kamini Kaushal, Rafiq Anwar as protagonist Balraj, Zohra Segal, Chetan Anand's wife Uma, and also of Pandit Ravi Shankar as the music composer. Inspired by Russian writer Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths, Neecha Nagar juxtaposes two localities: Ooncha Nagar (High City) and Neecha Nagar (Low City). Ooncha Nagar is the place where the high and mighty live, drag on their imported cigars, sip on exotic brews and eat in silverware attended on by a retinue of servants all the while looking down upon the residents of Neecha Nagar, whose destinies and fortunes the rich write.  

The story is about a shrewd and a rapacious businessman from Ooncha Nagar named Sarkar played by Rafiq Peer, who wants to drain a swamp to make way for residential high-rises. To effect his scheme, he plans to channel the water through Neecha Nagar, ignoring the catastrophic effect such a devious plan would have on its poor residents. Sarkar uses subversion, coercion and deviousness to divide his quarry even as he sugarcoats his venom. Catastrophe soon strikes as the filthy water becomes the breeding ground of diseases. When the villagers of Neecha Nagar start dying, Sarkar in his magnanimity establishes a hospital. However, the villagers see through Sarkar's deviousness with Balraj turning into their moral and spiritual leader. When Balraj falls prey to the disease, it's Sarkar's daughter Maya played by Uma Anand – the love interest of Balraj – who takes over the fight.

Neecha Nagar was many things combined into one. It was an amalgamation of an unrelenting pursuit of excellence; a documentary of human suffering under an alien power hellbent of maximising its own profits; a satirical take on diplomatic exercises being nothing more than masked passive aggression; a seminal work that would inspire generations of auteurs to take on the powers that be without fear or favour; an allegory of the British oppression aided and abetted by profiteers. That Chetan was allowed to complete the filming and was even given the Censor Board's approval speaks highly of the auteur's ability to hide complexity in the bosom of the story that was adapted to the Indian context by Hyatullah Ansari. The dialogues were crafted by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. Neecha Nagar was produced by Rafiq Anwar, who took some of the reels and negatives to Pakistan after partition. The shooting began in 1945, and was sent to the inaugural edition of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946 as India's official entry. There it won the Grand Prix with 10 other movies.

Interestingly, a majority of the films that won the top honours were anti-imperialist and anti-colonial in tone and tenor. The reason could be that Cannes itself was an act of protest. When the first annual international film festival was inaugurated at Venice in Italy in 1932, the country was in a vice-like grip of the Fascist Benito Mussolini. A couple of years into the festival, the participants ascertained that only Nazi and Fascist propagandists were likely to take home the Mussolini Cup, which later came to be known as The Golden Lion. It was in protest of this partisan selection that French bureaucrats and ministers decided to start their own festival. Cannes was selected as the venue and September 1, 1939 was set as the date of inauguration. However, on that very day Nazi Germany invaded Poland to start the Second World War, and the festival was called off. The festival resumed in 1946 after the world war ended.

For a film that was well-received abroad, Neecha Nagar found it difficult to even find a release in India. The fact that Chetan Anand refused to compromise to the demands of box office did not help matters either. There is not a single love song in the entire cinema, and this was enough to keep the revelers away. It was only after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru intervened that the distributors relented to give slots for Neecha Nagar's theatrical release. But, the audience on its part refused to have anything to do with an 'art cinema' that was going to be heavy on sermon and watertight on entertainment. The film tanked. Neecha Nagar for all its global exposure and acclaim was a miserable failure in its homeland. And, with that died the hopes of Chetan Anand to be a trailblazer in the world of Indian cinema. The wannabe torchbearer of India's neorealism had died a sudden death. Probably he should have paid heed to what Anton Chekhov had to say to Maxim Gorky in 1902 after reading the play The Lower Depths...

“The tone is gloomy, oppressive; the audience, unaccustomed to such subjects, will walk out of the theatre, and you may well say goodbye to your reputation as an optimist… ”

After the failure of Neecha Nagar in its homeland, Chetan was considered a non-bankable director, unsafe and also a bit dangerous. To get work again, he had to make compromises; from wanting to adhere to realism in cinema, he had to embrace noir. After tasting further defeats in Afsar and Andhiyan, lady luck finally smiled on him when his noir film Taxi Driver became a hit. 1964 turned out to be a watershed moment in his career when the granddaddy of Indian war films – Haqeeqat – was released. Later, his 1966 cinema Aakhri Khat showed what genuine craft meant when he let loose a toddler in the unforgiving Bombay, and followed him with a handheld camera to record the travails and tribulations tinged with compassion. Aakhri Khat predates Baby's Day Out by a quarter of a century, and yes, Aakhri Khat was Rajesh Khanna's debut vehicle.