Directed by: Raj Kapoor
Starring: Rishi Kapoor, Padmini Kolhapure, Shammi Kapoor,
Raza Murad, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Tanuja, Nanda,
Sushma Seth, Kiran Vairale, Vijayendra Ghatge, Bindu, Om Prakash
From one movie about relationships considered outside the norm, to another, which showcases a relationship that even while it is between opposite sexes, was (is?) considered taboo. It brought to the fore the question of the right of a Hindu widow to remarry, along with a scathing denunciation of the way women are treated by a patriarchal society, and the double standards practised by the men therein.
Manorama (Padmini Kolhapure) is the pampered daughter of the Thakur household, headed by her benign uncle, Bade Raja Thakur (Shammi Kapoor). She is capricious, prone to throwing little tantrums when her wishes are not granted, but is on the whole, a kind and generous girl, and is not above telling her Badi ma (Sushma Seth) off when she feels like it.
She and Radha (Kiran Vairale), the daughter of the village priest, are childhood friends, despite the difference in their stations. Though her aunt dislikes the friendship, neither her loving mother, nor her fond uncle constrain her to end it. When Radha mentions that her cousin Deodhar (Rishi Kapoor) is coming home for the holidays, Manorama wants them to meet him at the station. Radha is taken aback; whoever heard of a thakur's daughter doing such a thing? As is her wont, Manorama brushes it off. Buddhu babu is coming back and she is going to meet him.
Her insistence that she will definitely recognise him after eight years leads to Radha and Deodhar having some fun at her expense. Manorama is furious, but Dev is smitten.
A series of meetings with Manorama only leaves Dev even more in love with her than before. Her open friendliness, her childish squabbles, her generous nature, even her questioning of what love is, all lead him to believe that she cares for him as much as he does.
Radha tries to warn him - Manorama meherbani karti hai tum par jo tumse hans bol leti hai; ise pyar samajhne ki bhool mat karna (Manorama condescends to you when she behaves so familiarly; don't make the mistake of thinking she loves you); but Dev is sure - of his love, of his Rama. He decides to ask Bade Raja Thakur for Manorama's hand in marriage.
Dev is in for a shock, however. Manorama's marriage is being fixed to Kunwar Narendra Pratap Singh (Vijayendra Ghatge). What is more, she is thrilled about the whole affair. As she prattles on about her husband-to-be, Dev's heart breaks - its only witness the Chhoti Thakurain (Nanda). And perhaps, the young kunwar.
Broekn-hearted, Dev decides to leave, but is forced to bow to his Rama's wishes and stay back for the wedding. Rama is married off amidst all the pomp and circumstance, and as her doli leaves the haveli, Dev returns to the city.
The next day, Manorama comes back to her home, in accordance with custom. Naren, flush with happiness, goes out in his jeep, and is killed in an accident leaving behind Rama, his bride of one day. Overnight, her life changes. A girl who has never known grief is subsumed by it. The women from the Thakur khandaan and even her own Badi maa are bent on following tradition that demands that a widow's long luxurious locks be shorn (for everyone knows that beautiful hair attracts male attention).
Chhoti Thakurain is helpless; Bade Raja Thakur tries his best to get the women to see reason. Is it necessary that such a barbaric custom is continued? That mistakes are repeated? He is however silenced by the women, including his own wife. Luckily for Rama, succour is at hand. Her jethani - the Rajrani (Tanuja) stops the ceremony. Rama is their daughter-in-law, she insists; the day the pheras were taken, she had renounced her paternal home. Now it is up to them to take care of her.
And so Rama begins life anew in a household where her jethani is very loving, and very practical. Her young sister-in-law has a long life ahead of her; she needs to learn how to take care of herself. Young Rama takes her advice to heart; in that one moment, she leaves her childish naïveté behind.
Months pass, and Rama, though grieving in private, has come to terms with her new existence. Her jethani's son is her constant companion, and in sharing his childish joys, she manages to cope with the exigencies of her life. Unfortunately, sorrow hides around the corner even as the the haveli rings with her laughter; it attracts the attention of her jeth, her husband's elder brother, Thakur Virendra Pratap Singh (Raza Murad). One night, when the Rajrani leaves to attend a family wedding, the thakur returns home late at night, and...
It is interesting that he first tries to send her away, almost as if he knows she is, or should be, out of bounds. His lust, however, fuelled by alcohol, makes him revert to what he terms 'tradition'; widows have often been married off to their dead husbands' brothers. The Rajrani returns to find Rama a living corpse. Giving in to the young girl's wishes, the hapless woman sends Rama home.
There is a difference between the Manorama who was the pampered daughter of the house, and the defeated young woman who returns home from her sasural. She is constantly reminded of her fate by her aunt, whose taunts hurt not only Rama, but also the Chhoti Thakurain. She ensures that Rama's life is miserable; her luxurious room is no longer hers, she cannot laugh, cannot talk to strangers, she is only allowed one meal a day, which she has to cook herself...
Her mother, suspecting what had brought her daughter back home, breaks down in tears when Rama confirms her suspicions; distraught, she begs her daughter to keep it a secret. For, if the thakur men learn of it, blood will flow...Meanwhile, Dev, not knowing of the storms that have broken over his Rama's innocent head, returns to hear this shocking news. When he meets Rama, her plight grieves him immensely. To Rama, his presence is a breath of fresh air. In his company she learns to laugh again, to feel again, and finally, to love again.
How will the Thakur khandaan react to the taboos being broken, and by one of their own? Even Bade Raja Thakur, who has consistently been fair and just - will he be able to go against the tide of social opinion? There is much turmoil ahead for the lovers, and indeed, it seems like the fates are conspiring with her family and society to keep them apart.
After the box-office debacle of Satyam Shivam Sundaram (the film won him a Best Director award at the Filmfare awards, though), Raj Kapoor needed to make a film where he did not bow down to distributors' diktats. Prem Rog was his answer to both critics and box-office pundits who had been predicting the ruin of the RK banner. Prem Rog vindicated his belief - it won him the Filmfare Award for Best Director and Best Editor, while heroine Padmini walked away with the Best Actress trophy, the youngest heroine after Dimple Kapadia (for Bobby) to have done so.
Based on a story by Kaamna Chandra, RK went back to what he was good at - telling a story, and telling it well. He pulled off a calculated risk when he pitted heavyweights like Shammi Kapoor, Tanuja, Nanda, Raza Murad, and even Rishi Kapoor against the young Padmini Kolhapure (she was barely 17 then).
With strongly defined characters (irrespective of the length of their roles), the film gained its depth from the exceptionally fine acting of its heroine, who traversed the emotional spectrum from a young girl in love with the idea of being in love, with that of a young widow, who, having lost all, learns to love again - and to fight for that love with the support of her man. This was Padmini's film, and she delivered an outstanding and moving performance.
As Manorama, the young spoilt daughter of the Thakur khandaan, she was chirpy and lovable. Later, as the young widow, her whole demeanour undergoes a change. It's not just her expression, it is her whole body language that changes. The contrast is striking. In a later interview, Padmini would confess that she was like clay, moulded by the master.
Rishi Kapoor cheerfully took on a secondary role - RK's heroines were always more important than his heroes. As Deodhar, the young man who dares fall in love with a woman who is of a higher caste than him, and is ready to stand by her against her family and society, he acquitted himself with honours.
He is a man of principles, and is willing to fight for what he perceives as injustice; when Manorama consoles him saying she has learnt to accept her fate, he is furious - Kyun seekh liya? he demands. He has the courage of his convictions, and refuses to elope with Rama when asked to do so - Ye dharam yudh hai, Bade Raja Thakur, he says, is mein samjhauta nahin hoga. (This is a righteous war, Bade Raja Thakur, there can be no compromise here.) What I liked was that when Manorama tells him that she is not worthy of him because she has been raped, there are no sanctimonious sermons about her purity. Deodhar's response is very matter-of-fact: did she think that would make him change his love for her? Manorama is even more pragmatic: where is she asking him not to love her? And while Rishi's Deodhar is the voice of a nation's conscience, RK does well to keep the preaching to the minimum, allowing the set scenes to do his talking for him.
The double standards are well-depicted by the Thakur men played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Raza Murad. Women are just objects - their wives are trained to unquestioning obedience; their daughters are brought up within the boundaries of maryada - social norms. They, on the other hand, are entitled to seek their sexual pleasures outside the marriage bed; it does not matter if the object of desire is the maid, or the village women, or even their own widowed sister-in-law. Men will be men, or so they seem to say, and they can make their own rules, and even bend them, if necessary.
In one of the film's (many such) finely tuned scenes, Chamiya (Bindu), who is the frequent occupant of Chhote Thakur's bed, asks him if he hadn't been so quick to punish the villager because he himself had designs on the young widow.
When Veer Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) blusters about how it is the responsibility of men such as he to keep the social rules and laws in place, Chamiya scoffs: You use women and throw them away like bottles of liquor. The only difference is that you pay for the alcohol in advance.
Nanda and Tanuja play the helpless Thakur women, bejewelled and silk-clad, constrained by the laws of the ghoonghat and the rules of the patriarchal society they live in. They are a curious mixture of strength and weakness: Tanuja stops her widowed younger sister-in-law from having her hair shorn, saying she now belongs to their khandaan; yet, when she realises that her husband has destroyed the young girl's life, she has no other option but to send the girl away. As she tearfully confesses, there is no place for her to go.
Nanda may break down helplessly when she learns of her daughter's plight, but when she comes face to face with her daughter's brother-in-law, there is not a word spoken - the scene is all the more powerful for the silence, and Nanda invests her gaze with all the rage and contempt that she feels.
Yet, there is more to her than silence. With her daughter's future at stake, she does not hesitate to excoriate her husband, and question her elder brother-in-law, Bade Raja Thakur, even coming out of ghoonghat in order to do so.
Bade Raja Thakur is the head of the household; he is open minded, forward thinking, 'modern' (for want of a better word), but even he has his blind spots.
He advances the cause of a widow in the village, who is being courted by a man who wants to marry her. (It is a great scene: the widow, berated by her own father for 'being a prostitute' and shaming him in society, is rescued by Bade Thakur who asks him what fault is it of hers that her husband died. In contrast, his brother, Manorama's father, accuses the young man of leading the widow astray.) But he cannot bear to think of his widowed niece in love with a 'commoner'. When he finally comes to terms with that, it is difficult for him to buck social mores and bless their union in public - Elope! he tells them. Shammi Kapoor played Bade Thakur with just the right shades - in a lesser fashion, the double standards are well-entrenched in him as well.
Kiran Vairale has a short role as Radha, Deodhar's cousin. Young as she is, she is pragmatic about their situation, and willingly marries a much older widower not only because she understands her parents' poverty, but also because she knows the fate that awaits her if she continues to live in the village. She is more far-sighted than the pampered Manorama, and knowing of Deodhar's love for Rama, tries to warn her off her warm and open friendship with him. She even cautions Deodhar that he is mistaking Manorama's friendship for love - her young friend has no clue what love is. Kiran is a good actress, and she does well as Radha.
Prem Rog was a commercial film, no doubt, and had its fill of songs (and like all RK films, the songs served to pull the narrative along), but it was a film with heart. Hard-hitting dialogues (Jainendra Jain) added the necessary pizzazz to a strong script. Under the 'rich girl, poor boy' love story, lay a social commentary not only on the plight of widows (even pampered daughters from rich homes) but also on casteism and rampant superstition, and how the affluent get to write (and re-write) the rules of their society.
What makes it even more frightening is that it is not only society at large that wants to keep its women trapped; their own families are no better. When Bade Raja Thakur orders the man to get his widowed daughter remarried, it is not just Thakur Veer Singh who objects. Her father is against it too. Biradariwale hukkah paani bandh kar denge hamara, he says. The community will ostracise them. Don't the traditions, the rules mean anything?
These remarks still echo in our land. Life hasn't changed much for women in the hinterlands (or indeed, even the cities) even though we have made great strides in other spheres. Or else we would not still hear of honour killings and panchayat punishments for what the Panch consider a crime against their rules.