Prem Kahani (1937)
Director: Franz Osten; Writer: Niranjan Pal; Producer: Himansu Rai; Cinematographer: Joseph Wirsching; Editor: Dattaram Pai; Cast: Ashok Kumar, N.M. Joshi, Bilquees, Aloka, M. Nazir, Kamta Prasad, Tarabai Solanki, Saroj Borkar, Mayadevi, P.F. Pithawala, Vimala Devi, Chandraprabha, Manohar Ghatwai, Sunita Devi, Mumtaz Ali, Madhurika Devi, Ahteramuddin
Duration: 01:27:20; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Lightness: 0.282; Volume: 0.219; Cuts per Minute: 5.759; Words per Minute: 47.584
Summary: Bombay Talkies' eighth film since the studio was founded in 1934, adapts a story by its lead author and scenarist Niranjan Pal, titled 'Touchstone' or 'Marriage Market', indicating a shorthand version of the film's theme. It uses the well-established literary device of creating a 'frame story' within which the love story grows.
This is Bombay Talkies' eighth film since the studio was founded in 1934. Averaging three films a year, BT was now competing with the most profitable studios of Bombay and Calcutta with its steady output and consistent production quality.
Niranjan Pal's original title for the English-language story and screenplay was 'Touchstone' or 'Marriage Market', indicating a shorthand version of the film's theme.
BT was one of the few studios in the city that had its own film processing plant, thus making it a self-contained production facility for faster product turnaround.
CAST in this scene:
Ratanbai, daughter: Aloka
Karamchand, father: Joshi
Lakshmibai, mother: Bilqis
Priest/ Chandrakanta: M Nazir
CAST in this scene:
Ratanbai, daughter: Aloka
Karamchand, father: Joshi
Lakshmibai, mother: Bilqis
Priest/ Chandrakanta: M Nazir
Niranjan Pal's original screenplay contains an elaborate description of this scene, with a brief silent prelude centered on the mother's attempts to serve the afternoon tea: "Karamchand paces the room like a lunatic in suppressed rage; Lakshmibai goes on pouring the tea into a cup which is almost full and in a moment begins to overflow. Her mind is not in the tea. Her daughter, Lakshmibai, is facing her with tears streaming down her cheeks; Karamchand comes and sits down between mother and daughter. Lakshmibai goes on filling the cup -- it overflows and the hot tea trickles down the table on to Karamchand. He stands muttering an imprecation; Lakshmibai realises her mistake; in her nervousness drops the tea-pot on the floor with a crash. Almost simultaneously Chandrakanta enters and holds watching them from near the door. ..."
With his experience writing for the London stage, Pal brings a significant degree of writerly detail to his film screenplays in terms of stage directions and character blocking. At the same time, the excerpt above also reveals an understanding of the power of silence and gesture in cinema. While Pal tried to create psychological drama through the device of the tea service, the edited film launches straight into the action with the economical opening shot of a young woman crying.
And thus begins the 'real' story with the primary characters. The literary device of the 'frame story' is a favorite with Niranjan Pal and recurs in these early BT films. In Achhut Kanya the frame narrative functions as an independent prefatory vignette, but in Prem Kahani, a key character (Chandrakanta) links the two narrative threads via a flashback.
Saroj Borkar regularly played supporting roles in BT films from the 1930s. By the mid 1940s she had moved to Poona's Navyug Chitrapat and acted in several Marathi films in the 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps a career-best performance is in Room No. 9 (Vedi, 1946):
Not much is known about Maya Devi. We know that she acted in 3 BT films in 1937 - Jeevan Prabhat, Savitri, and Prem Kahani - and this is her only starring role. Some sources indicate that she moved to Pakistan after Partition and died in 1967.
A classic misunderstanding-related plot point which is only possible thanks to a play with dialogue, and hence sound.
Maya's romantic desire is anchored in a photograph of her beloved. Photographs are often mobilized in films of the 1930s as affective loci.
BT has chosen a distinctive Maharashtrian setting for this film evident through costumes, cottage architecture and interiors, and the unavoidable Western ghat outdoors.
Amusing, if gauche, flirtations in the form of children's rhymes. Is this the beginning of infantilized on-screen romance?
Ashok Kumar describes his life's ambitions: to diligently pursue his college studies, achieve academic success, and then work for the nation. Such a vision of personal success and public service achieved through higher education was prevalent amongst the middle classes and all who aspired to bhadralok status. BT's heroes never espouse radical or militant theories of anti-colonialism or social justice, intent as they are on following the (Protestant) work ethic of steadfastness and hard work. This is a point I hope to further work out in my dissertation.
Gendered dream montage
For the hero: stellar academic results, success as a barrister-vakil, a wealthy philanthrope in his old age. Again, the accumulation of personal wealth is recommended as the chief mode of social contribution.
For the heroine: love marriage, great housekeeping skills and culinary talent, children, and finally to die happy and fulfilled and before one's husband.
*Spoiler alert* Of course, dreams are never visualized on film unless they are to be shattered.
Rare traveling shots of Bombay city in the 1930s: Victoria Terminus, 'Victorias'/ tongas, streets crowded with pedestrians, cars, and carriages, ubiquitous advertising and signages, single and double-decker trams, The Orient Hotel.
As discussed in the Achhut Kanya annotations, once again we see BT in-house dancers Mumtaz Ali and Sunita Devi in a specially plotted dance sequence. Ramala is a modern college girl with a philanthropic sensibility. She is putting together a variety show in order to raise funds for the destitute. This story element creates the space for several choreographed songs and dances. In an interesting innovation, we see the dancers perform a kathak number in modern dress and in fashionable living room interiors - a creative liberty enabled by the 'rehearsal' context.
We also see a group of musicians - a diegetic orchestra - most likely the artistes who provided the live instrumentation on-take. The eclectic mix of jal tarang, tabla, violin, and even a piano (chk) was part of the Homji Sisters' popular appeal and a Saraswati Devi signature.
Thanks to the unprecedented archival fragments in the Dietze archive, we now have rare access to a screenwriter’s literary inspirations and references. In the original English-language screenplay by Niranjan Pal the following song by Chandraprabha (nee Manek Homji) is indicated as ‘THE SONG’ by the character Prova (see document below):
The verse that Pal uses as a mood reference for the final Hindi lyrics is from Arthur Ryder’s 1912 translation of Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava or The Birth of the War-God: https://archive.org/details/kalidasatranslat00kali
The section from which Pal picks up his poetic reference is titled "The Honeymoon" by Ryder and describes the divine romance of Shiva and Parvati. Ryder's brief gloss states that “The first month of marital bliss is spent in Himalaya’s palace. After this the happy pair wander for a time among the famous mountain-peaks. One of the these they reach at sunset, and Shiva describes the evening glow to his bride.”
Chandraprabha’s song in this scene is a beautifully rendered classical composition in Raagini Yamini, Bilawal Tritaal. The music is by the more famous of the Homji sisters, Khorshed a.k.a Saraswati Devi, and the lyrics are by J.S. Casshyap. A staff writer and occasional actor at BT, Casshyap skillfully shifts linguistic and emotive registers as Ashok Kumar/Jagat is reminded of his rural romantic idylls with Maya.
The knowledge of Pal’s reference to Kalidasa via Ryder adds a palimpsestic pleasure to this song sequence; not only are there contextual fidelities between the source material and the diegetic context, but there are also multiple axes of creative variation brought in by diverse talents (writer, music composer, lyricist, 2 female singers). We are reminded, again, that cinema is a collaborative craft that oftentimes surpasses the control of the ‘visionary’ individual auteur.
This song sequence begins with a beautiful deep focus composition that frames the orchestra in the background and the 'biraagan' of the song in the foreground. The parallel cuts between the rehearsal and Maya's sacrifice are coupled with these songs of separation and union to create dramatic irony. They also serve to build a sense of foreboding as the viewer wonders whether Jagat will forget his Maya now that he is in the bewitching city and with a confident, modern young woman.
Note the wallpaper, art deco furniture, ashtrays and lamps in the Bhagwandass/Ramla sequences.
Look out for great crowd and audience shots on the day of Ramla & Co.'s final performance. Sets, costumes, and props are all planned to indicate a high society event. Chandraprabha/ Prova's gold silk saree and glitter blouse are exquisite. The film credits Manilal for costumes but it is likely that the sarees belong to Devika Rani or Manek Homji themselves, while Manilal might have been the 'Dress Dada' or Costume In-Charge.
The choice of an indeterminate Islamicate fantasy theme for this song is significant. For one thing, it allows for an elaborate dance spectacle with lavish costumes and set design. But more interesting is the contrast between the supposedly pre-modern world it references and the self-consciously urban diegetic context.
In her new book, Bombay Before Bollywood: Film City Fantasies (2013), Rosie Thomas argues for a reinstatement of what she calls the ‘Arabian Nights' fantasy genre into histories of early Bombay cinema. “Key to India's oriental fantasy film was its setting within an imaginary world outside India. Although sometimes coded as quasi-Arabian and/or ancient Iranian, this was in fact a hybrid never-never land…” Though Niranjan Pal referred to this dance item as a “Persian dance” in the original English-language screenplay, the filmed version is a pastiche of references. We see Arabian Nights-style harem pants, waistcoat, and fez; the symbol of the Islamic crescent moon; and Islamicate domed architecture on the painted backdrop - all references that firmly belong to a mythical Orient, somewhere west of India.
Thomas argues that such a fantastical Orient “drew heavily both directly and indirectly on the fashionable orientalism that infused Euro-American art, literature, cinema and performing arts of the 18th to early 20th centuries, in the construction of which the Arabian Nights had played a major role” (32-33). This deliberately exotic entertainment, therefore, should be seen as part of a “transnational orientalism” or what Peter Wollen calls an “oriental modernism”, quite fashionable in the modish circles of Europe and America. These traveling fashions swept cosmopolitan Bombay via the Urdu Parsi theatre, itinerant performance troupes that frequented the Taj Mahal hotel, Hollywood films, and the chic social elite. The well-traveled BT crowd was a part of this cosmopolitan set and Niranjan Pal chooses his voguish entertainments with care.
Recall also the prior dance option that was rejected in the rehearsal scene. The ‘maalan’s dance’ or the gardener’s dance might be BT’s own tentative attempt to find a fashionably exotic, and othered subject from within the local context.
In this wedding sequence we really see the conscious decision to portray this as a Maharashtrian family via costumes. Most other BT weddings I've seen feature Hindu rituals, but costumes are not so regionally marked.
This location is most likely the front porch and lawns of the BT studio office in Malad. You can see it more splendidly lit and utilized in the wedding reception sequences of Jeevan Naiya.
Rare example of an interior car shot at night. Competently lit by Wirsching, Pareenja and the unknown lightboys. They have not been able to eliminate multiple shadows but the directional spot and passing headlights make it a visually arresting scene.
This song was composed by Saraswati Devi in Ragini Ramkali, and according to the song booklet it follows a lavani style. Lavani is a genre of popular folk music from Maharashtra and it would be appropriate to use it in this regional setting. However, given the lavani's current association with high tempo dance and erotic lyrics, we would need a lavani historian to ascertain whether the form was ever used for such songs of separation or sorrow.
A ragini "has the feminine character of a raga" (SB Abbas 2003) and Ragini Ramkali has a rather cinematic meaning as per the Ragamala paintings. Raga Ramkali is an early morning raga and is often visually rendered as a woman spurning her cheating lover at daybreak. See this painting and the accompanying text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:http://metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/37852
In this scene, Ashok Kumar/ Jagat mourns the loss of his romantic ideal. His hopes for perfect union are dashed by the news of Maya's marriage. Jagat assumes that he has been betrayed, a reversal of the gendered roles depicted in the Ragini Ramkali painting.
Single source, low key lighting is quite frequently visible in BT films from the 1930s. Notice how naturally (diegetically speaking) the characters stand within the circle of light emitted by the oil lamp. The dramatic impact of such lighting is highlighted when the third character walks from darkness into the light. See also a couple of scenes prior to this, when we see an anguished Ramla in her room at the Hindu temple/boarding house.
The 'woman from the city' is bound to carry the moral burden of her debauched habitat. Even as the priest and his wife harshly brand Ramla as licentious, we see her peek into the wedding scene from behind the compound walls, a forlorn outsider figure in a moment straight out of Murnau's Sunrise. It is to BT's credit that Ramla is not portrayed as an immoral, scheming seductress. Instead, she is a smart, confident city girl who drives her own car but can also accept defeat in love. More crucially, perhaps, she combines tradition with modernity and can interpret inauspicious signs like the falling of the 'veneration plate'!
A review of the film echoes this reading: "Ramala though very modern as girls go now a days is nevertheless singularly innocent. Maya her rival in the picture, who, unlike Ramala did not have the advantage of modern education, is very like Ramala. Both suffer equally when called upon to conform to the demand of custom at the sacrifice of love." (Times of India, May 14, 1937).
The tempestuous night of final revelations begins.. all narrative strands intersect as multiple desperate lovers flounder in the storm.
This climactic sequence uses pathetic fallacy to great effect. All key characters confess their heart's secrets with the howling wind and blinding lightning serving as a mirror to their psychological turmoil. We intercut between four sets of characters and locations. The lighting is low key and expressionist, and shadows gain meaning.
If the natural world isn't enough to portray characters' emotional struggles, then optical effects can do the trick. Prem Kahani uses superimposiiton in key scenes to articulate a character's mental processes - in this case Chandrakant's epiphanic realization of the purity of Maya's love.
Usha is literally haunted by Jagat's words and visage as she too understands the compulsions of true love.
Four lives have been lost in vain. Chandrakant's crazed look signifies his spiritual transformation. We dissolve to the same composition in the present where Chandrakant has renounced material pleasure.
A lesson well learned. The daughter's reaction shot is unnecessary as the moral of the tale is targeted at the older generation.