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Neel Akasher Neeche: A Tale of Humanism Amid the Freedom Struggle

June 6, 2023 | By

Neel Akasher Neeche, the second film directed by Mrinal Sen, and produced by Hemant-Bela Productions, is a simple story of an innocuous relationship between a Chinese peddler of silk cloth, Wang Lu, and a Bengali freedom fighter, Basanti, who is married to a successful lawyer. In the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle, the film celebrates the triumph of humanism. Let’s rewind the film, which is also known for its two classic songs.

Kali Banerjee as Wang Lu in Neel Akasher Neeche

Wang tours the city on foot with his bundle of China silk on his shoulder

Calcutta 1930. The opening shot places Neel Akhasher Neeche firmly in its time frame. It was the time when India’s struggle for freedom from British imperial rule was rising in a giant wave across the country, and Calcutta was a nerve centre. The camera pans the city’s massive skyline nestling beneath the wide blue sky with a brief narration about the tumultuous period and a lone ‘Chinaman’, one of the unknown multitudes who fight for survival in the lanes and bylanes. Shots of processions and protests, with the police chasing the demonstrators, place the film in its context and you prepare yourself for a journey that will bring you a slice of the bustling metropolis going through stormy times.

Films featuring foreigners, there have been many. Movies that have a foreigner as a main character, there have been several. Especially films that dealt with the British colonial period typically would have British characters in major roles – from Junoon to Lagaan, there are many examples. However, very few films have been made on immigrants playing the main role – those who come to India to sell their wares or make a living. Only two films come to mind – Kabuliwallah, based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, about the relationship between a Pathan kabuliwala and a little Bengali girl, made into films by Tapan Sinha (Bengali) and Hemen Gupta (Hindi). And the film under discussion here – Neel Akasher Neeche (Under the Blue Sky), based on Padma Vibhushan Mahadevi Verma’s short story ‘Chini Feriwala’.

Wang Lu (Kali Banerjee) is a ‘China-man’ or Chinese man who lives in a shanty in a part of Calcutta that is home to several Chinese immigrants. He sells ‘China silk’ for a living, roaming the streets on foot, bent with a huge bundle of silk cloth slung over his shoulder, calling out ‘Ch-e-e-naa se-e-elk’. Children tease him for his looks and manner of talking but he doesn’t mind.

Once he chanced upon Basanti (Manju Dey), the khadi-wearing freedom fighter, when she shooed away the children creating a ruckus around him. Hemanta Mukherjee’s chirpy daughter Ranu appears in an adorable cameo here. An instant, unspoken affinity between Basanti and Wang Lu is apparent.

Wang doesn’t make much from his sales and Maki (Smriti Biswas), the helper girl at the eatery in his neighbourhood, tries to bring him some food stealthily. She is attracted towards Wang, although he rather roughly rejects her advances.

Kali Banerjee and Smriti Biswas in Neel Akasher Neeche

Maki stealthily brings food for Wang who is unable to pay for his food bills

The lovely artwork of a woman’s face in a huge billboard advertisement of ‘Madhuri’ soap on a street corner reminds Wang of Basanti and he comes knocking one day at her door. Basanti tries in vain to make him understand that she has no interest in his silk. She addresses him as ‘bhai’, which touches Wang’s heart, reminding him of his lost sister in China. “Tum humko bhai bola. Sab humko bhagaa deta,” says Wang, finding a sympathetic heart in a city which does not consider him as one of their own.

This starts a unique relationship of empathy between the two, much to the chagrin of the elite and arrogant husband of Basanti (played by Bikas Roy, referred henceforth as Roy). On Wang’s side, it is Maki who feels jealous and insecure at his growing affection for his ‘sister’.

Kali Banerjee and Bikas Roy in Neel Akasher Neeche

The western-attired lawyer, conscious of his elite status, throws Wang out of his house

Basanti and her husband are as different as chalk and cheese. She is humble, down to earth, committed to the freedom struggle and wears only khadi. Her husband is fiercely protective of his status among the upper echelons of the city and is thus annoyed at Basanti’s revolutionary leanings. Her growing interaction with a poor Chinese immigrant becomes a cause for social embarrassment for him. The chasm between the couple starts to widen. Wang even saves Basanti from getting caught by the police but Roy wants to hear none of it.

Manju Dey and Kali Banerjee in Neel Akasher Neeche

Wang brings a new year’s gift for Basanti

Things reach an explosive point when Wang, dressed in his best festival shirt, brings Basanti a gift on the Chinese New Year.  In a brilliantly scripted scene, Sen brings out the wide difference between the attitude of Basanti and her husband towards the underprivileged. Using the staircase as a symbol, Sen places Roy initially in a superior position, who is concerned about how the society and his relatives would view his wife’s affinity for a poor Chinese. “Why does this street hawker feriwala have so much headache for you?” asks Roy, looking down at Basanti standing a few steps below from his elevated perspective. “Where there is a headache, he is not a feriwala. He is a human being,” Basanti replies, in a lovely high angle shot, the courage of conviction writ large on her face. Roy has no answer to this.

“Step aside,” Roy says.
“Na,” says Basanti, determined to stop her husband.
“Step aside.”

Basanti steps aside and Roy descends rapidly down the steps, determined to throw Wang out once more. Basanti stays where she is, watching him. The angles change. No words are exchanged but her conviction is so powerful, that a confused Roy stops, turns hesitantly, and slowly begins the climb up. We can sense a change in his perspective which will be apparent later.

Manju Dey and Bikas Roy in Neel Akasher Neeche

Mrinal Sen uses a change of angles to show stature and a change in perspectives

Wang, having heard the altercation, quietly leaves. The Madhuri soap billboard, which served as a symbol of his ‘sister’ is crossed out with cruel strokes by a labourer – it has outlived its time. Lyricist Gouriprasanna Majumdar and Hemanta Mukherjee team up to create a classic title song, shot sensitively in the dead of the night in the streets of Calcutta. As a dejected Wang aimlessly roams — the Church, the Corinthian pillars of Prinsep Ghat, the banks of the Ganga, the Strand Road, Hemanta’s baritone urges you to cry for the unknown millions who sleep under the blue sky, hidden in the dark silence of the night, listen to their story of pain in the wail of the wind, and see their tears in the dewdrops.

Neel akasher neeche prithibi (Neel Akasher Neeche, 1959) Gouriprasanna Majumdar / Hemanta Mukherjee

A repentant Basanti goes looking for Wang in his neighbourhood. A jealous Maki tries to stop her from meeting Wang. But Wang is overwhelmed at Basanti’s gesture. Basanti gently explains to him that Maki loves him and might have been pushed into being a ‘bad girl’ probably to fend for her family. Wang now relates Maki’s situation with how he lost his sister, back in China.

Manju Dey Kali Banerjee and Smriti Biswas in Neel Akasher Neeche

(L) Maki tries to stop Basanti from meeting Wang. (R) Basanti talks to Wang in his shanty

There is a perceptible change in Roy’s attitude towards Wang. He now has a listening ear for Basanti who can frankly discuss Wang with him.

Basanti is jailed for 6 years and Wang tries vainly to get a glimpse of her. When she returns in 1937, he comes to meet the now frail and ailing Basanti once only to tell her that he is going back to his China muluk. His native land now needs him to join the resistance movement in the Sino-Japanese War (1937).

Sen worked hard to create the ambience of the period – using soundtrack, costumes and props. “In a number of key sequences, he deliberately switched off the soundtrack, creating moments of poignant silence.” Basanti is shown reading Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Pather Dabi, a controversial and banned work in those times for its bold portrayal of the revolutionaries.

Basanti’s mother-in-law represents the generation that is caught in the crossfire. She is scared about her irrepressible daughter-in-law’s secret activities to help fellow revolutionaries. Yet she is also openly critical of her son’s prejudice towards the innocent China-man. Her role is short but significant because she shows a rare balance for a generation that hardly ever stepped out of the house.

Kali Banerjee in Neel Akasher Neeche

The recurring motif of the Madhuri soap billboard – (1) The face reminds Wang of Basanti (2) Wang happily says a ‘thank you’ to the billboard after meeting her (3) The billboard stands defaced when Wang leaves Basanti’s home

Sen uses some recurring motifs in the film. The Madhuri soap billboard is a reflection of the ups and downs in Basanti and Wang’s relationship.  The river Ganga emerges as an alter ego of Wang. He keeps returning to it for solace, as if it is a thread that connects him with his native land, its limitless flow reminding him of the river back in his village.

Neel Akasher Neeche was Sen’s second film but it marked the debut of Hemanta (famous as singer-composer Hemant Kumar in Bombay film industry and as Hemanta Mukherjee in Calcutta) in film production. How Sen landed this project is an interesting story, detailed in Mrinal Sen: Sixty Years In Search of Cinema by Dipankar Mukhopadhyay and Anandadhara, the autobiography of Hemanta Mukherjee.

Assamese singer-composer Bhupen Hazarika had first told him about this story by Mahadevi Verma, published in her book, Smriti Ki Rekhayen, “which was a little like Kabuliwala”. In 1957, Hemanta and Bhupen came to Calcutta to listen to the script written by Mrinal Sen (who had directed one film Raatbhore). The story was located mostly in China and sounded more like a radio script to Hemanta. Sen said that he had written it as per the requirement given by Hazarika and can modify it if Hemanta wanted it done differently. Hemanta kept the script with himself and for a long time, Sen didn’t hear much about it.

The screenplay writing was entrusted to another writer and Uttam Kumar and Arundhati Devi were thought of for the lead roles. But things didn’t work out and the film project was shelved.

Hemanta felt Sen’s script had potential and called him over to Bombay. Hosted by his two friends Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Salil Chowdhury, Sen revised the script in Chowdhury’s house. Hemanta was so pleased that he booked Sen a flight back to Calcutta. It was the first time Sen boarded a plane. Though initially, his role was limited to scripting, the responsibility to direct the film also came his way a couple of months later.

The debutant producer reposed complete trust in his talented director and gave him full freedom to select his cast and make the film the way he deemed fit. For Kali Banerjee’s makeup, Hemanta flew Sen and Banerjee to Madras to consult ace makeup artist Hari Babu, who was much sought after by the top artists of Bombay and the South. In half an hour’s time, Hari Babu created Wang Lu’s look.

“The film was released in February 1959. It became a hit, garnering rave reviews. Ananda Bazar Patrika, which had blasted Raatbhore in no uncertain terms, wrote:

‘The best of art is universal and Neel Akasher Nichey has passed the test. It speaks about the innermost feelings of men—which are not limited by time or geographical boundaries. This has been successfully conveyed by the director in a suitable manner without resorting to any great dramatic trick or complicated symbolism; the most important thing is that he never preaches any sermon and throughout the film, has used the language of cinema.’

Jugantar, another Calcutta daily, called it, a ‘film to be proudly shown both inside and outside the country’ while Bharatjyoti, a vernacular daily from Bombay, compared it with Bicycle Thieves and Pather Panchali.”

(Extract from Mrinal Sen: Sixty Years In Search of Cinema by Dipankar Mukhopadhyay)

Hemanta, with the help of his contacts in political circles, organised a special screening of the film at Rashtrapati Bhavan on 16 January 1959. The invitees were the President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, the Vice-President, Dr S Radhakrishnan, the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, his Cabinet colleagues, the Congress President, Indira Gandhi, and some members of the AICC. While Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, Indira Gandhi and several other VIPs had spent long years in Bengal and could follow the dialogues, Nehru sought the help of Sucheta Kripalani to translate the dialogues. The film was watched with interest and much appreciated by the august audience.

Pt Nehru, Hemant, Mrinal Sen after screening of NAN at Rashtrapati Bhavan

Jawaharlal Nehru, Bela Mukherjee, Hemanta Mukherjee and Mrinal Sen after screening at Rashtrapati Bhavan

Nehru later spoke highly of the film at the Congress Party’s Working Committee meeting. The film also came in for praise from the leaders of the Communist Party of India—still undivided, such as Muzaffar Ahmed and Jyoti Basu. Breaking norms, Swadhinata, the mouthpiece of the CPI wrote an analysis of the film in its editorial. Hemanta recalled that the officials in Bombay’s Chinese Consulate, when shown the film, were surprised to know that a Bengali had played the main role, as they thought it was a Chinese artist from Calcutta.

All this exposure and endorsement helped the box-office fortunes of the film but the strained Sino-Indian relations came as a damper. “It had to be hastily withdrawn from the circuit after the border war of 1962 and as a fallout, the film was banned by the government. The ban order was subsequently lifted but it was nonetheless a blow to its commercial prospects.” Neel Akasher Neeche thus ended up with the tag of being the first film to be banned in independent India. Sen later distanced himself from his creation – his style of filmmaking had changed, and he now found the film “unbearably sentimental and technically, very shoddy” but always stood by “its political content”.

Mrinal Sen after a screening in Assam

Mrinal Sen after a screening in Assam, Hemanta is sitting behind him (far left)

“His cinema is of high excellence,” Hemanta wrote in Anandadhara, calling Sen with whom he had developed a close friendship, an “adarsh charitra” who would never sacrifice his “adarsh” (ideals) for money.

Neel Akasher Neeche dared to step away from the beaten track of moviemaking. It celebrated the victory of humanism above territorial boundaries. Its songs are among Hemanta’s best known works.  Over the years, this writer has received requests from music aficionados and singers, unfamiliar with the Bengali language, to help them understand the meaning of these songs. Hence, given below is the translation of O nadi re.

O nadi re (Neel Akasher Neeche, 1959) Gouriprasanna Majumdar / Hemanta Mukherjee

O Nadi re
ekti kotha shudhai shudhu tomaare
bolo kothaaye tomar desh
tomar neiki cholaar shesh

Oh, river, I ask you just one,
Tell me where is your native land;
Is there no end to your stride

tomar kono baaNdhon naai
tumi ghar chhaara ki taai
ei aachho bhaaNtaaye
aabaar ei to dekhi jowaar e

You have no bonds
Is that what makes you homeless?
In one moment, you are in ebb tide
and in flow tide in the very next

ekul bheNge okul tumi gauDo
jaar ekul okul du kul gailo
taar laagi ki koro

You break one shore to build another
What do you do to those
whose both shores are broken,

aamaaye bhabchho michhei por
tomar naai ki oboshor
shukh dukkher kautha kichhu kohile naa hoy aamaare

You think of me as an outsider, mistakenly
Don’t you have a little time to pause
And talk to me about your pleasure and pain

(All pictures are courtesy Internet)


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Editor in Chief, Learning and Creativity; Consulting Editor, Silhouette Magazine. A former business journalist, Antara writes extensively on the changing trends of music, direction and filmmaking in cinema. Her articles aim to provide well-researched information on the legends of cinema for the movie and music enthusiast. She is also the Founder-Editor of Blue Pencil, a New Delhi-based publishing house. She edited and published Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, the biography of SD Burman written by HQ Chowdhury. She has co-authored a chapter on Hemant Kumar's Bengali music in the acclaimed book The Unforgettable Music of Hemant Kumar, written by Manek Premchand. Her articles have also been published in and Antara is Editor-Creative Director of Wisitech InfoSolutions Pvt. Ltd.
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6 thoughts on “Neel Akasher Neeche: A Tale of Humanism Amid the Freedom Struggle

  • N.S.Rajan

    This is not just an article but a ‘Treatise’ on Mrinal Sen’s art and technique of film making. I have seen many films shot on the streets of Bombay and a few of the ones shot outdoors in Calcutta. I have always felt that the B&W films shot on Calcutta streets in the films of the first few decades outclassed those of Bombay by a distance. Whether it is the Calcutta Sun or the sheer genius of the directors/ cameramen, those B&W films were striking in their impact.
    This film, discussed threadbare by Antara, is a classic example. It has everything from every film making department excelling in the production. The theme is one that calls for very deft and underplayed handling yet highlighting the emotions of the principal characters. This was the characteristic trait of Bengali Cinema and it has been effectively used in “Neel Akasher Neeche”. One has to keenly look behind the scenes to absorb Sen’s genius. Hemanta Mukherjee’s music is like gilding the Lily.
    Antara has recreated the film in words as vividly as if one were seeing it on the screen.
    One wishes that she writes more often.
    Thank you, Antara.

    1. Antara

      Thank you Rajan Sir for this very detailed and insightful feedback.

      Somehow I have always found the streets of Calcutta and Bombay more lively and artistic and poetic or maybe better captured by filmmakers than the streets of Delhi. Though not too many films have been shot here. Also, in the golden era, several of the filmmakers had very good knowledge of the camera, some were ace cameramen themselves or had very competent cameramen in their crew.

      Your kind appreciation of my review makes me feel delighted. It is a learning experience studying the films of these masters – there are several layers of thought and craft in each frame. Peeling them is a process of discovery. And this film, especially its songs, have been part of growing up.

      O nadi re‘s tune was later used by Hemant Kumar in one of his productions again – in Kohra’s O beqarar dil, sung by Lata Mangeshkar.

      Thanks again for reading and sharing your valuable views. 😊🙏

    1. Antara

      Thank you Sudeep,

      Very happy you liked it. Neel Akasher Neeche is a much lesser talked about film in Mrinal Sen’s repertoire. But it firmly signalled the arrival of a filmmaker of immense talent. Perhaps there lies its importance. Moreover, its significance in the world of music cannot be ignored.

      Thanks again

  • A Bharat

    A most absorbing write up Antara! I was carried along ‘tinke ke tarah bah nikalke’- as though in the swirls of the Nodi which is the symbolical superstructure of the film! I’m sure watching the film itself couldn’t be as irresistible. Kali Banerjee has always been my favourite ,a character actor who literally disappears into the character like the genie in the bottle. I wonder why Roy always ends up in this kind of role. The black and white prints are sensitively chosen and I particularly liked the one showing Smriti with a smug look on her face! And the song- what a devastating experience- and the chinese motif in the music at the end is too real to be art. Thanks Antara!

    1. Antara

      Thanks so very much Bharat ji for the fabulous feedback! Delighted and humbled. 😊

      Kali Banerjee played Wang Lu to the perfection possible. You are right. And yes, Bikas Roy does get saddled with such negative roles – probably because he looks so grim and sometimes rather vicious. He has a good comic timing too but that is seldom used. But when he is in that form, he is rather funny.

      But what amazed me most is the stellar performance by Manju Dey – she is understated, dignified, confident and looks the perfect picture of Basanti who has chosen the rough and tough way of the revolutionary.

      By Chinese motif at the end, did you mean O nodi re? I fully agree… the shots of a rural, riverine China and the music that has a typically Chinese rhythm… brilliant! The original story was actually based more in China than India and would have required extensive shooting there which was not possible. So Sen tweaked it to make it lean more towards India.

      Thanks again Bharat ji. Very happy you liked the exploration. 😊🙏

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