Prem Nath belongs to the age when heroism and villainy were clearly defined in Hindi cinema. But he didn’t start out as one of the star attractions of the gallery of rogues that have included Pran, Ajit, Prem Chopra, Ranjeet and Amrish Puri. Rather, Prem Nath’s early roles were as leading man or supporting actor after months of struggle that included a diet of peanuts and sugarcane juice.
This nugget about Prem Nath’s meagre food intake is one of many from the documentary Amar Prem Nath Last of the Titans. The film was directed by Prem Nath’s son, Monty Nath, in 1995 and broadcast on Doordarshan. It is being screened again on the Zee Classic channel alongside four of the actor’s films, including Johny Mera Naam (1970). The screenings mark Prem Nath’s birth anniversary on November 21 (he died on November 3, 1992).
“I wanted the younger generation to know that my father was a multi-faceted man and a great actor,” said Monty Nath, who also acted in films in the ’70s and ’80s, including Ashanti (1982), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) and Maharaja (1998).
The documentary includes interviews with 24 actors, including Prem Nath’s co-star Bina Rai, whom he married in 1952. Many of the actors (Ajit, Amrish Puri, Sunil Dutt, Pran, Dara Singh, Shammi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna) have now joined Prem Nath in the afterlife, which is an indication of its vintage. They provide instances of Prem Nath’s versatility, gregariousness, generosity, interest in wide-ranging subjects and dedication to the art and craft of filmmaking.
Prem Nath was born in Peshawar in undivided India in 1926. His father, Kartarnath Malhotra, was a high-ranking police officer and the maternal uncle of Prithviraj Kapoor. The bond between the Malhotras and the Kapoors were further cemented in 1946, when Prithviraj Kapoor’s son Raj married Krishna, Prem Nath’s sister. Prem Nath’s other sister, Uma, was married to the 1970s villain Prem Chopra. Only in Bollywood.
Prem Nath was one of the early members of Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatres. His first leading role was in Ajit in 1948, and a series of films followed, including Barsaat (1949), Naujawan (1951) and Aan (1952). It was in Barsaat that he honed his acting style, Rishi Kapoor says in the documentary, while his swashbuckling skills and tough-man image in Aan did not go unmarked among his fanbase.
Among the actors featured in the documentary is Dharmendra, who recalls admiring Prem Nath’s physique, swagger and projection of virility in his early roles. “He deeply affected us young men,” Dharmendra says. Prem Nath was the original He-man of Hindi cinema, Dara Singh adds.
Many of the actors provide testimonies of Prem Nath’s willingness to help actors in need. Om Prakash recalls the time when Prem Nath bailed out 1940s actress Cuckoo with a loan. Amrish Puri tells of the day when a play he was acting in was washed out by a downpour. Prem Nath made it to the auditorium and paid Puri enough money to cover the box office earnings.
The interviews reflect the warmth, camaraderie and mutual respect among the actors for each other. “The industry was really friendly in those days,” Monty Nath said. “They would sit down together, have lunch together, laugh together. These days, everybody disappears into their make-up vans.”
The film reveals other facets of Prem Nath’s life. He wrote novels in Hindi and English, was deeply spiritual, and had an unsuccessful run as a producer of four films and three documentaries. In the mid-1950s, dissatisfied with the turn his career was taking, Prem Nath travelled to the Kailash mountain range in Tibet. In 1957, he made a documentary on his travels, Kailas Darshan.
Prem Nath totted up many credits during the ’50s and ’60s, but the career took a definite turn in Vijay Anand’s thriller Johny Mera Naam. In the movie, starring Dev Anand, Pran and Hem Malini, Prem Nath plays a smuggler who is masquerading as a prince. As examples of Hindi film villainy go, Prem Nath’s performance is somewhere at the top, especially in the notorious striptease Husn Ke Lakhon Rang, in which he lunges for Padma Khanna a bit too convincingly. The vitality and energy that he brought to this phase of his career would animate his future roles too.
Monty Nath was 12 years old when Johny Mera Naam was released. Vijay Anand had originally wanted Prem Nath to play the role of Pran, who is Dev Anand’s long-lost brother in the film. “My father knew this was his comeback film and that was why the performance is so charged,” he said. Apart from Johny Mera Naam, Dharmatma, Bobby and Roti Kapda Aur Makaan are among Monty Nath’s favourites.
Villainy has changed in the films since Prem Nath’s time, Monty Nath observed. “Earlier, there used to be one villain, and then it got diluted after the trend of multiple villains started,” he said. “The villain’s importance got divided, and there wasn’t enough meat on the roles for the actors playing them.”
Other career highlights in the ’70s and ’80s includes films across genres, such as Roti Kapdaa aur Makaan (1974), Bobby (1975), Dharmatma (1975), Kalicharan (1976), Heeralal Pannalal (1978), Karz (1982) and Desh Premee (1982). Kalicharan contains a meta-moment: as the characters played by Prem Nath and Ajit play a game of chess, a police officer’s portrait hangs in the background. The figure in the painting is Prem Nath’s father.