Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Prem Kahani

With a cast that includes Rajesh Khanna, Shashi Kapoor, and Vinod Khanna, the gender balance and narrative focus of Prem Kahani (Love Story, 1975) is definitely shifted towards the manly side. The "love story" of writer-director Raj Khosla's film is one of masculine friendship, loyalty and self-sacrifice.

But by far the most interesting character in Prem Kahani is Kamini (the adorable Mumtaz). Kamini is in love with her next-door neighbor Rajesh (Rajesh), an apolitical poet who plans to become a teacher. The famous Rajesh-Mumtaz chemistry is in full effect in "Prem Kahani Mein":

Prem Kahani's superb soundtrack is by Laxmikant-Pyrarelal, with lyrics by Anand Bakhshi; the playback singers are Kishor Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohd. Rafi and Mukesh.

Kamini's wealthy father, Judge Shrikant Sinha (K. N. Singh), is a supporter of British rule—the film is set during the days of the Quit India movement of the early 1940s, although the clothes and hairstyles scream mid-1970s—and he arranges Kamini's marriage with police inspector Dheeraj (Shashi). Defiantly, Kamini declares her intention to marry Rajesh. Her father tells her that if she goes against his wishes, she must carry her proposal to Rajesh herself—and she does:

Kamini proposes to Rajesh

But Rajesh's politically committed brother Brijesh (Trilok Kapoor) has been killed leading an anti-British demonstration. Rajesh, radicalized, has decided to join the freedom struggle. He sacrifices his love for Kamini because he doesn't want to see her widowed like his sister-in-law, and pretends that his feelings were never serious:

Rajesh rejects Kamini

Kamini, deeply hurt and angry, agrees to obey her father's wishes and marry Dheeraj.

Rajesh now embarks on a campaign of assassination and becomes a wanted man. He's wounded during a police dragnet, and is smuggled to the house of a close friend in the truck of the Pathan tribesman Sher Khan (Vinod Khanna):

Sher Khan promises to sacrifice himself

(Sher Khan doesn't realize how quickly his willingness to sacrifice himself will be tested.)

The close friend Rajesh has chosen to hide with is none other than...Dheeraj! And sending the irony meter pinging off the scale, Rajesh's unexpected arrival at Dheeraj's house interrupts Dheeraj and Kamini's wedding night. But Dheeraj has the right priorities:

Dheeraj is indifferent to his wedding night

Despite Dheeraj's and Rajesh's supposed closeness, apparently neither one has ever mentioned Kamini to the other. Of course, this puts Rajesh and Kamini in a painful and awkward situation, and they both pretend that they've never been anything more to each other than neighbors. But there's still plenty of emotion simmering beneath the surface, as in "Phool aahista phenko" (Gently pluck the rose):

When Dheeraj finds out that Rajesh was once in love, he puts him on "trial" with Kamini as the judge. She delivers her verdict on Rajesh's behavior towards the unnamed girl:

Kamini's verdict: Rajesh should have been honest

Of course, Kamini herself isn't being fully honest with Dheeraj—or, perhaps, with herself, as Rajesh's presence brings old feelings flooding to the surface (or should I say pouring down like the monsoon):

(Notice how, at the end of the song, Rajesh closes the windows—symbolically closing off the resurgence of their feelings for one another. It's just one of Raj Khosla's many telling directorial touches in the film.)

Meanwhile, Sher Khan has been arrested and is being tortured to reveal Rajesh's whereabouts, and Dheeraj can't intervene without throwing suspicion on himself and endangering Rajesh. (If you're thinking, as I'm sure you are, that this scenario is eerily similar to the moment in Puccini's opera Turandot when the servant girl Liù is tortured so that she'll reveal the true name of Prince Calàf, the parallels don't end there.)

As the police manhunt for Rajesh closes in, and as it becomes harder for Rajesh and Kamini to conceal their (former?) love from Dheeraj, Kamini is forced to make a final, fateful choice—a choice which, if the men had been listening, she made long ago...

Kamini with a gun
You don't mess with Kamini!
Kamini is an incredibly compelling character: smart, courageous and complicated. And Mumtaz is wonderful in the role. In a film packed with male stars, she more than holds her own, and makes Kamini the focus of our sympathies

For an additional take on Prem Kahani (including the gorgeous lyrics of "Phool aahista phenko"), please see MemsaabStory. From this wonderful review, Memsaab on "Phool aahista phenko": "This is Hindi cinema at its finest, honestly. So much communicated so beautifully in one simple song! How to explain it when someone says 'Oh, Bollywood—those are musicals, right?' Sigh."

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