Chetan Anand (3 January 1921 – 6 July 1997)
Born in Gurdaspur, Punjab, Chetan’s formative years were nourished by the teachings of the Vedanta in a Gurukul before he went to Government College, Lahore, and then onwards to Cambridge.
27-year-old Chetan married 19-year-old Uma in the spring of 1943. Well after marriage, a scholarship to London University and a fellowship at Doon teaching English, History and tennis, Chetan remained a shy, violin-playing romantic. Very English, very much the armchair critic. His redemption lay in his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and self-expression.
The next phase in his evolution fortuitously fulfilled his soul quest. In 1944, he shrugged off a motionless stability and plunged into the chaotic ecstasy of motion pictures. A few disappointments were inevitable – a script for Kishore Sahu and a role opposite Nargis, which never went beyond promises. In 1946, Chetan Anand impacted with Neecha Nagar, a stark indictment on rural exploitation by the British and their landed toadies.
He directed Neecha Nagar, co-scripted with Hayatullah Ansari, based on the latter’s story. He also introduced maestro Ravi Shankar for the background score. Satyajit Ray would later pay a moving tribute when he told Chetan Anand that it was Neecha Nagar that inspired him to make Pather Panchali. Neecha Nagar also fetched the debutante director an award at the Cannes Film Festival, sharing honors with David Lean’s classic Brief Encounter.
Time and again, he drew blood with his exposes on civilized cruelty. In Aandhiyan (1952), a young girl is ‘sold’ in marriage to an old lecher.The human condition drew him to a subject. It was always the suffering of people and their emotional responses to conflict that interested him. The hallmark of his work was classicism. In addition, he was peerless in imbuing a love story with dramatic depth. He felt that only cinema was the complete medium of self-expression because it obviously embraced other art-forms but communicated them within the parameters of the common man’s understanding.
Dev Anand had launched Navketan, his own production company in 1949 in a bid to create opportunities for both brothers but they soon realized that Chetan’s kind of films simply could not keep the company afloat. And so, although Taxi Driver (1955) was a big hit, Chetan moved away from Navketan to establish his own banner Himalaya Films and make his own kind of films.
When he emerged, it was to a standing ovation for, depicting the Chinese invasion of 1962, in one of the best war films ever made – Haqeeqat (1964). At every trial held for army officers, they unanimously wept.
In the decade between Haqeeqat and Heer Ranjha, the 50-year-old filmmaker scaled his creative peak. The Collegian who once reeled off Shakespeare with biblical fervor spurred on Kaifi Azmi to outshine the bard in the all verse Heer Ranjha.
He made Aakhri Khat (1966) because, “I’m sure that if a 18-month-old child were to be lost in this heartless city nobody would care.” He shamed the nation with documented proof by deliberately letting a child wander around trailed by an unobtrusive camera which captured the indifference of real passers-by.
Rajesh Khanna remembered, “I got the lead in Aakhri Khat only because Sanjay Khan was rude to the production controller. There were no stars in Chetan Saab's unit; his stars became his pupils.”
Neecha Nagar (Chetan Anand, 1946): The film, written by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, is an expressionist look at social injustice in rural India. The story centers on a fantastically wealthy landlord who lives in a palatial estate high up on mountain while the poor toil and starve in the valley below. There is a serious and committed comment at the spirit displayed by a community of slum-dwellers as they protest against the toxic waste being dumped in their colony in connivance with corrupt municipal officers. A bold effort to expose the widening gap between the peoples' expectations and the determination of the rich not to recognise them made Chetan Anand the first Indian filmmaker to win an international award. Neecha Nagar won the coveted Grand Prix Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (1946). A highlight of the film was Pt. Ravi Shankar's debut as a film composer.
Haqeeqat (Chetan Anand, 1964): India's first and the finest war film to date, Haqeeqat became a yardstick for subsequent Hindi films based on war. The film is a heroic portrayal of India's 1962 war with China over the disputed Ladakh border. Haqeeqat is the only film that depicts this war in all its reality. The director has brilliantly woven drama and history together on his cinematic canvas. The movie not only involves a sense of pride but also brings a tear to the dry eye as one goes through the turmoils of soldiers as they fight with abandon to save their motherland. Kaifi Azmi pens some of his best lyrics for this movie. Madan Mohan is in his elements as he composes some of the gems of his legendary repertoire. The film is also boosted by an extremely well written screenplay that engrosses the viewer. Films like Haqeeqat are made but once in a lifetime.