With a title screen (and title) like this, you’d expect a happy movie, right? Wrong! It’s incredibly sad. I sobbed for a good hour. But it’s also really good. The story takes place against the backdrop of India’s fight for freedom from British rule (although no attempt to recreate the period through costumes or anything has been made), and is a love triangle between two best friends and the girl they both love. What saves it from descending into jingoism and melodrama are the marvelous performances by Shashi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz and Vinod Khanna; Raj Khosla’s deft direction; and the lovely songs by Laxmikant Pyarelal with beautiful, meaningful lyrics by Anand Bakshi.
This is a pretty long post, because there’s a lot to say about this film. It isn’t perfect, but does so much just right that the imperfections don’t matter.
Rajesh Narain (Rajesh Khanna) is about to graduate from college and dreams of becoming a teacher. His best friend is Dheeraj Kumar (Shashi Kapoor), who has just been promoted to Superintendent of Police and is on his way to his new posting.
Rajesh promises to visit him after he goes home to see his older brother and his family. Brijesh Narain (Trilok Kapoor) publishes a newspaper and is an active participant in the Quit India movement. Rajesh is in love with Kamini (Mumtaz), who lives with her parents next door to Brijesh. Her father Rai Bahadur Sinha (KN Singh) is a supporter of the British, and Brijesh’s activities are a constant irritant for him.
Rajesh himself is mostly apolitical. He wants to teach literature; he’s a poet and a dreamer. This doesn’t go over too well with Kamini’s father, who has found a nice guy with a good government job for Kamini. But Kamini loves Rajesh, although Rajesh is reluctant to approach Sinha with a proposal when he doesn’t have a job yet. They are so cute together! as always! and sing a lovely duet, “Prem Kahani.”
Things are about to take a tragic turn, though. Brijesh leads another peaceful protest march, but instead of being arrested again, he is shot dead.
His grief and anger move Rajesh to join his late brother’s comrades. They try to talk him out of it—one sacrifice per family is enough, they say; who will look after Brijesh’s wife and daughter?—but he will not be deterred and they finally give in.
Meanwhile, Kamini’s father flatly refuses to give his blessing to her marriage with Rajesh. She defies him and goes next door to ask Rajesh to marry her (I love how bold she is!).
He flippantly rejects her, pretending to have never been interested in marriage, only in romancing her. Of course his real motives are that he doesn’t want her to become his widow, but he doesn’t tell her that and she is deeply hurt.
Kamini, thank goodness, sticks up for herself.
But she’s devastated; at home she tells her mother that she’ll marry whomever her father has picked, that she doesn’t trust her own judgment any more. Rajesh is upset too, but he’s made up his mind to sacrifice all for his country.
Soon after this, he and his band of brothers catch the man who ordered his soldiers to shoot Brijesh. Supposedly he’s English, although he looks like an Indian with blue contact lenses; however, the filmmakers do manage to find a gori lady to “act” (badly) as his wife (“No, no please have mercy!” in a monotone).
Hilarious! Rajesh kills the “Englishman” (she pretends to swoon…oh, it’s really bad). This naturally puts a big price on his head, and soon the police everywhere are looking for Rajesh as he continues his revolutionary activities. After some months, he goes to visit his bhabhi and Munni; their house is being watched though (duh!) and the police soon arrive looking for him.
He hides in a pile of blankets, and as Munni watches terrified, her mother puts her hand over Munni’s mouth and nose to keep her from giving Rajesh away. Unable to breathe, Munni dies—this is based on a very sad true story, which you probably have already heard, but it seems a bit unnecessarily over the top here. The police leave without finding Rajesh, although one havaldar shoots his rifle into the bedding where he is hiding, wounding him badly in the arm. This wound is nothing compared to his grief over Munni’s sacrifice, of course.
He needs someplace to hide while he recovers from his injury, and he tells his fellow revolutionaries that he’ll go to his friend Dheeraj’s in Ghazipur. With Dheeraj being the SP there, nobody will suspect him of hiding Rajesh. One of his friends arranges a ride for him with a truck driver named Sherkhan (Vinod Khanna).
Vinod!!! Sherkhan drives Rajesh to Ghazipur, but has to break through a police roadblock to do so. The police note down the truck’s license number, but lose him in pursuit. Sherkhan and Rajesh arrive at Dheeraj’s house and find it lit up like a Christmas tree: it’s his wedding day.
Inside, Dheeraj is shyly approaching his new bride for the first time with a gift—a book of Rajesh’s poetry.
He doesn’t have long to wait on that score, because the wounded Rajesh bursts into the room. Despite his injuries, he wants to meet his best friend’s bride.
Yes, of course: it’s Kamini. She has married Dheeraj per her father’s wishes. The humanity! They are shocked to see each other, and appalled, but Dheeraj remains cheerfully clueless; plus, he’s a little bowled over by his new wife’s beauty. This is quickly replaced by concern, as Rajesh faints into Kamini’s lap.
Outside, Sherkhan is stopped by a police havaldar and arrested.
After bandaging up Rajesh, Dheeraj and Kamini spend an uncomfortable wedding night sleeping on the floor and the sofa, as Rajesh is occupying the bed. In all fairness, he has offered to leave but Dheeraj won’t let him.
Oy, clueless man! In the morning, Dheeraj goes to work, leaving Kamini to take care of Rajesh. It’s exceedingly awkward, as you’d expect, and their rare exchanges of conversation mostly consist of sniping at each other.
Dheeraj arrives at the police station to find havaldar Kotwal (Yunus Parvez) interrogating Sherkhan. He prevents Kotwal from beating Sherkhan for the moment, but Kotwal goes to a higher official for permission to torture him into confessing and gets it. When Rajesh asks Dheeraj if the Pathan has been caught, Dheeraj lies and says he hasn’t—Rajesh is relieved.
Of course, the tension at home is thick enough to cut with a knife. Bewildered, Dheeraj attempts to break it.
Through a gorgeous duet (“Phool Ahista Phenko”) which is fortuitously subtitled for me since the lyrics are brilliant, Rajesh and Kamini communicate their feelings to each other. Kamini expresses her anger and hurt, and indignance that Rajesh should be upset with her that she’s gotten married. Rajesh reveals his sorrow at hurting her and tries to placate her a bit. Their expressions during this wonderful song match it in intensity. I begin sobbing.
When you pluck the rose, pluck it with care
Gently pluck the rose, for roses are delicate
In any case, they are unfortunate to blossom among thorns
Gently pluck the rose, for roses are delicate
You do have a lovely little grouse
But isn’t it unjustified too?
Those who always hurt people
Say this when they are themselves hurt
They say, gently pluck the rose, for it’s very delicate
The ones who make people weep eventually cry one day
Pluck it gently, for roses are delicate
They hurt not, they are the ones who hurt
Pluck the rose gently
You do have sympathies for the beauty of the rose
And why not? You’re a man too
One answer for a thousand questions
Let not the eyes deceive you
Pluck the rose gently
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.
Anyway. I don’t stop sobbing, because the torture of Sherkhan has commenced. He stoically and steadfastly refuses to say anything about Rajesh. Dheeraj at one point even gives him veiled permission to tell the truth rather than suffer any longer, but he refuses. There isn’t much else Dheeraj can do for him without drawing attention and suspicion to himself, and his helplessness and frustration shows on his face.
Kamini sings another lovely song at a party Dheeraj holds to celebrate their wedding with friends and colleagues. She sings about her “prem kahani” as “water drawn away from the river”—it’s quite sad but beautiful, and after the guests leave, Dheeraj stops her on the stairs.
When they are back in the room with Rajesh, Dheeraj asks him what happened to his romance with the girl he loved. Rajesh (who has overheard Kamini’s song downstairs) explains everything as Kamini listens silently. At the end, though, she tells him that he should have been honest with the girl and that instead of getting married to someone else:
Poor Dheeraj heartily concurs with her and it’s Rajesh’s turn to fall silent. Meanwhile, as Sherkhan endures his continuing torture in silence, Kotwal gradually becomes more suspicious of his superior officer as he discovers clues that he is hiding something.
How can this tangled web resolve itself? Will Sherkhan finally be broken? Will Dheeraj learn the truth about Rajesh and Kamini? Will he be able to save himself from certain arrest, and Rajesh from hanging? What will happen to Kamini and Dheeraj? Or Kamini and Rajesh?
The story builds to its climax perfectly. Yunus Parvez’ performance as Kotwal is very good. The building of his suspicions about his SP is done just right, and is very believable, as is his determination to do his job and capture the fugitive Rajesh. I’ve already said that the main characters have done their jobs exceptionally well too—the performances by all are subtle, believable and nuanced. The undercurrents of patriotism and sacrifice required for the fight for independence is not overdone or cliched for the most part; the heart of the story though is of relationships, of building them and sustaining them, and of letting go when necessary. Well worth seeing, Prem Kahani is another wonderful film from Raj Khosla (and I continue to love his peeping Tom camera angles!).