Prem Kahani (1937)


I love the elegance of the Art Deco era of the Twenties and Thirties. Of course my mother points out that I would have probably been at the back of a bread line dressed in rags, but I prefer to picture myself draped in chiffon and pearls, languidly smoking from a long cigarette holder and lounging in a posh Park Avenue mansion. Thanks to Prem Kahani, that vision has been altered slightly to one of gold-edged sarees and cocktail shakers; a quartet of musicians playing in my Marine Drive home as friends and I rehearse for a benefit we’re holding for the poor and needy (the people actually standing in that bread line of Mom’s).

But I am getting ahead of myself.

This is a lovely little film from Bombay Talkies, directed by Franz Osten with the usual assembly of BT personnel: Josef Wirsching behind the camera (oh, the photography is wonderful); Saraswati Devi and JS Casshyap providing the music and lyrics; and dashing young Ashok Kumar as our hero. He is ADORABLE. He has not one but three ladies to act opposite, in particular Maya Devi as the childhood companion he truly loves. She is absolutely gorgeous.


Also typical of BT is the progressive social theme, this one about arranged marriages and thwarted love (no, parents, you shouldn’t try to control your adult children’s lives).

The story is framed within another story (given only cursory attention at the beginning and end of the film). It opens with an angry father (NM Joshi) and beseeching mother (Bilqis) trying to convince their tearful young daughter (Aloka) that they know what’s best for her: a wealthy match instead of her poor but clever true love from her college.


The priest (M Nazir) who has come to fix the wedding overhears all this, and when he is invited by the parents to help them convince their stubborn daughter, he is surprisingly reluctant. He has a story to tell them, one from his life before becoming a priest which is also the reason behind his renunciation of worldly things.

He was a wealthy man named Chandrakant who lived with his only sister Usha (Madhurika Devi?) in a small rural town. Two widowed sisters, Heera (Tarabai Solanki) and Shanti (Saroj Borkar), also lived there with Heera’s son Jagat (Ashok Kumar) and Shanti’s daughter Maya (Maya Devi). Jagat is clever and ambitious, hoping to continue his education in Bombay. Heera and Shanti plan to marry him off to Usha, and would like Maya to marry Chandrakant, so that they have the money for his education. The priest (Kamta Prasad) who is facilitating the weddings asks to see Maya, and she not surprisingly misunderstands the situation as explained by Heera (who I guess means to say that he is fixing Maya’s marriage ALONG with Jagat’s). In Hindi it may be a more subtle distinction than the English subtitle allows.


Jagat himself when presented with his mother and aunt’s plan is not that keen on it, especially since they won’t tell him who his intended bride is. He would prefer to go to Bombay and register at the college as he’s been planning.


Maya, listening in as people do when their fates are being decided, thinks that the women are teasing Jagat. She meets him in the garden and they exchange their very gender-specific dreams—his of career success and hers of happy family life (plus, you know, the glory of dying before your husband does).


Jagat has a mentor and old family friend in Bombay named Bhagwandas (PF Pithawala), who has offered him his home and any other help he might need. Heera and Shanti want him to get married before he goes until they overhear Maya and Jagat in the garden, and realize that they love each other—especially after Maya tells Jagat that she is his bride to be.


Who could not predict that this strategy will end in tears or worse? They send Jagat off to Bombay and Bhagwandas to register for college and put their machinations for Maya’s marriage to Chandrakant into high gear.

In Bombay, Jagat is welcomed by Bhagwandas and we are treated to a drive through the streets of 1937 Bombay, complete with double-decker trolleys, taxis, horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, and buildings which still look exactly the same today.


At home, Bhagwandas’ daughter Ramla (Vimala Devi), whom Jagat remembers from their childhood days, is planning a musical program with her friends to raise money for charity. She is all grown up and quite beautiful herself, and engaged to a man named Motilal (Manohar Ghatwai?) who is not very nice. This mystifies me, as both Bhagwandas and Ramla seem like fairly sophisticated and modern people, and I don’t understand why either of them would choose a man they clearly both fear and dislike as a husband for Ramla, but never mind. Our story might not exist without him.


Ramla’s friends are played by dancer Sunita Devi; Mumtaz Ali (actor/comedian Mehmood’s father and the “Dance Master” at Bombay Talkies); and Chandraprabha. It is great fun to watch Sunita Devi and Mumtaz Ali dance (they have two numbers, one in rehearsal and one at the show itself—which is spectacularly costumed in Arabian Nights style).


During rehearsals though, Ramla is drawn to Jagat and Motilal becomes very jealous. Seeing this—and missing his beloved Maya—Jagat decides to cut his visit short and return home. BUT (and with Bhagwandas’ approbation), he doesn’t just talk to Ramla about leaving; he stages a drunken scene at the charity event (which we aren’t actually shown), and disappears, leaving poor Ramla in complete distress.


Back at home, Shanti has laid the guilt trip on thick for poor Maya and persuaded her that her marriage to Chandrakant will best facilitate Heera’s and Jagat’s hopes and dreams. And Chandrakant, when he finally gets a look at poor sad Maya, is smitten.


Not for the first time I reflect that the mournful sound of the shehnai suits Indian movie weddings perfectly. As Jagat speeds home on the train, dreaming of her, Maya marries Chandrakant.


Heartbroken, Jagat allows himself to be married off to poor Usha in short order as well, with the unfortunate Maya (now Usha’s sister-in-law) expected to help the bride get ready, and to participate in the ceremony. Salt in the wounds, parents, salt in the wounds!

Ramla, who has left Bombay to follow Jagat home, arrives just in time to witness all the misery:


which includes Maya’s dropping of the offering plate during the ceremony.


I think to myself that the truly bad omen was Shanti and Heera ignoring the wishes of their children. Khair. Motilal discovers that Ramla has followed Jagat, and he rushes after them with murder in his heart. Chandrakant and Usha each confront their unhappy spouses as a thunderstorm engulfs the town with torrential rain and lightning, reflecting the tumult in the hearts and minds of its occupants.

What will happen now? Will Motilal discover that Jagat loves Maya and not Ramla? Can any good come from any of this? Will our poor sobbing college student from the prelude be saved from Maya’s and Jagat’s fates?

Despite its many sorrows, this is a very watchable and enjoyable film. There are many sweet little details and moments which carry the story along. Besides the aforementioned art deco sets and costumes and the glimpses of 1937 Bombay streets, I particularly enjoyed the interactions between the “modern” Ramla and her friends and their musical interludes. The acting is fairly stilted as is typical of the era, but the characters are three-dimensional and largely sympathetic: even when their actions are those that I would never condone, the reasons behind them are explained and contextualized. I was invested enough in them and their lives that the supremely dramatic denouement of events had me riveted. I highly recommend it, especially since you can watch it with subtitles for free!

Hooray for the internet, something those involved in the making of this film probably never dreamed would exist!


28 Comments to “Prem Kahani (1937)”

  1. Sounds extremely interesting. Thanks for the link – so many more movies that I want to watch, though where I’m going to find the time, I don’t know!

    • I registered and put a huge number of films in my Favorites queue to watch, although I too have no idea where I’ll find the time! It is an awesome site though!

  2. I had just taken a Tylenol to rid myself of a bad headache. By the time I finished reading your review, my headache was back with a vengeance and I was going cross-eyed trying to remember and make sense of the characters in the story. Let alone remembering the names of actors! Nevertheless, a great find. I only wish there was some way to invent a version of speedreading for movie watching.

    • Maybe it’s just my bad writing, LOL!!! It was a pretty easy story to follow, and not that long either by Indian movie standards! Well worth giving a try. Hope your headache is gone by now :)

      • Not your writing, for sure! Lucid, detailed, and funny as always! With so many characters to introduce and the veritable flood of actor names and character names, you did a great job. It’s just the information overload reacting with the chemicals within my head, creating a (pun intended) heady cocktail.

        • You are so kind ;-)

          Naturally, it being me and all, I had to figure out who all the actors were so I can add them to my Artist Gallery page for that decade. Took a while but I think I got them all right! I am sure someone will set me straight if not!

  3. I have to admit I was thinking unkind thoughts about you as I read through the review and gazed longingly at the screen caps. I thought “Oh, how cruel Greta is to torment us with this fabulous art deco filled film that we can never see!” Then I saw the link at the end and my heart was filled with joy and I invoked a blessing of a thousand sons for you(gift receipt attached).

    • OMG, Shalini—YOU will love this site as much as I do, if not more. It has so many old films, many of them with subtitles, and it’s a beautiful beautiful thing. I just need more time!

      And please, I don’t even want one son thanks all the same. Maybe a daughter. Nope, not that either :D

  4. Thank you for this review and thank you for being back :)

  5. I love Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Ali, so will try to view it as soon as I can.

    thanks for the lovely review.

  6. Stilted acting notwithstanding, early Bombay Talkies movies were refreshingly real and free of cliches. As a Mumbaikar, Prem Kahani was like manna from heaven- it was delightful to see my city as it was long long before I was born.

  7. Ashok kumar was a legendary actor of his era. I haven’t seen this movie but will try to get it from the market if available.

  8. So happy to see this review. The Osians still for this movie (also in the second pic here) is like my most favourite 1930s couple ever. Its perfect!

    I love 30s film, there is an air of experimentation and its not overly formal.

  9. Is this m nazir the same who was the uncle of k asif and husband of dancer sitara devi and then actress swaran lata?

  10. Just read your article on Prem. Kahani,and went to YouTube.the titles give a surprising bit of information…The music director is a woman.saraswati!.
    So Usha Khanna was not the first female music director!

  11. Indian art cinema differs sharply from popular films which are more commonly known as the commercial flicks. The conceptual notion of art cinema though differs from being one of the fuzziest to one of the contradictory topics ever touched upon. They are realistic, often ethnographic, and they seek to capture important aspects of Indian reality. By and large, they avoid glamour and glitz and use cinema as an artistic medium capable of exploring important areas of Indian experience.

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