Editor’s note: When was the last time you watched a film, just because you stumbled upon on it, or heard someone mention it in passing? We’re so used to reviews, previews and a barrage of recommendations — it almost feels like it is impossible to enjoy watching a film without it being topical. And so, here’s a column we’re introducing — Films, Just Because — where we talk about films, just because.
In the pantheon of memorable Rajesh Khanna films, Prem Nagar (1974) is rarely mentioned in the same league as an Anand (1971) or Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) or Amar Prem (1972). Unlike the instant classic status of Anand or the high romance of Amar Prem or the fun of a Haathi Mere Saathi, Prem Nagar might not have a ready recall value but this later success of Rajesh Khanna still remains worth remembering and even revisiting.
A remake of producer late D Ramanaidu’s Telugu blockbuster Premnagar (1971) [later remade in Tamil as Vasantha Maligai, 1972], the Hindi version, too, was a huge hit. Looking back, one might credit Rajesh Khanna glorious run at the box-office for the film’s success but that isn’t entirely true. Like the earlier versions that featured top box-office draws such as A Nageswara Rao in Telugu and Sivaji Ganesan in Tamil, the Hindi version had one of the biggest stars in the lead. But by the time the Hindi version materialised, Rajesh Khanna wasn’t the same phenomenon that he had become following a string of 17 hits starting with Aradhana (1969). The interesting thing about the film was that the original Telugu version was the film on which D Ramanaidu had pegged his future. After having undergone financial losses on a few films, D Ramanaidu had decided to quit filmmaking altogether if Premnagar flopped. The success of the film gave him a new lease of life and the legendary producer — who was honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2009 — ended up producing over 150 films across 13 Indian languages, which is a Guinness World Record.
Besides being a special film for the producer, Prem Nagar was very close to Rajesh Khanna. The superstar had never shied away from portraying roles that were slightly off the regular path and Prem Nagar featured him as a decadent prince, Karan, who happily idles away his life as a playboy. Karan helps an air hostess, Lata (Hema Malini), from being molested during a flight and makes her his personal secretary. Lata transforms the debauched Karan and the two fall in love but this alliance isn’t acceptable to Karan’s mother, who finds Lata too plebeian for her liking. The two undergo a period of trial and are finally reunited after much drama.
While Karan isn’t completely dark or without misplaced redeeming qualities, Hindi cinema heroes weren’t expected to play such characters. Even though one can see similar shades in Shammi Kapoor’s role in Rajkumar (1964), where he plays a foreign-returned prince posing as a loud lout to unearth the identity of those scheming to dethrone the king, Prem Nagar’s Kamal doesn’t have a ‘reason’ per say to be a womaniser. In fact, Shammi Kapoor’s Prince (1969) is closer in spirit to Kamal but even in Prince the hero, an irresponsible alcoholic womanizer, undergoes a transformation when he fails to rattle a priest with his power. Rajesh Khanna had a knack for playing flawed characters like Karan with just the right amount of grace that would make them endearing. It is also a typical Rajesh Khanna film where the heroine has a well-etched role and in spite of being the hero he doesn’t hog the spotlight.
Prem Nagar was one of the last big hits that Rajesh Khanna enjoyed before the Angry-Young-Man juggernaut. Khanna had a good year in 1974 but the success of Prem Nagar along with Aap Ki Kasam and Roti as well as the critical acclaim of Aavishkaar couldn’t undo the doubt about his box-office prowess thanks to a string of six successive flops after 17 consecutive hits. Besides being a hit, Prem Nagar was also special for Khanna as it featured his favorite song ‘Yeh laal rang‘ sung by his ‘voice’ Kishore Kumar. It’s ironic that even though Khanna was a close friend of RD Burman, it was his father SD who ended up composing his favourite song. The film also initiated D Ramanaidu’s long innings in Hindi cinema and while he and Khanna reunited in Bandish (1980), it was Jeetendra and Anil Kapoor that he collaborated the most with.
Besides his favorite song, Prem Nagar also gave Rajesh Khanna a great memory that he would recall on many occasions. After watching the film Raj Kapoor is believed to have kissed Khanna’s hands and complimented him on the way he used them like swords in the climax. Years later, while being directed by the showman’s son, Rishi Kapoor, in Aa Ab Laut Chale (1999), Khanna couldn’t help but move his hands fervently in the climax except that junior Kapoor wasn’t impressed. The two almost came to a showdown with Rishi Kapoor shouting at ‘Kaka’ and instructing him ‘NOT’ to move his hands. Khanna completed the shot per instructions and reminiscing over Prem Nagar years later smilingly told his aides how Rishi had ‘sheathed’ his swords.