November marks both his birth and death anniversaries… Remembering veteran Prem Nath, who regaled with his onscreen and offscreen antics.
Prem Nath’s life was an escapade of extremes.
He quit the army to become an actor. During the ’50s, his chips were higher than the trinity of Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand.
He wooed Madhubala but finally married the demure Bina Rai. While her career soared after marriage, Prem Nath’s nosedived.
Disillusioned he went off to the Himalayas and befriended ‘200-year old’ sadhus. But spirituality was just an interlude before his second romance with showbiz as a character actor.
As the debauched Rai Sahab in Johny Mera Naam he was sheer drama. Husn ke laakhon rang… Padma Khanna’s strip tease as she baits Prem Nath brought in the toots and hoots.
Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma – a take-off on Godfather - had him play Dharmdas – Bollywood’s version of Marlon Brando. Earthy fisherman Jack Braganza in Bobby, loyalist Khan Badshah in Shor, the amiable Harnam Singh in Roti Kapda Aur Makan... Prem Nath was all sound and thunder.
Off-screen, tales of his bizarre behaviour kept the tabloids busy. That he often moved around only in a saffron silk lungi with beaded malas. That he greeted everyone with a boisterous, “Bham Bham Bhole!” That he’d apparently address anyone he didn’t like as ‘b****y municipality’.
To all those who called out his eccentricities his reported retort was, “They think I’m a mad man. But I think I’m the only sane man around and all the others are fakes and frauds. They have got all their knowledge from books written by others but I am a book myself.”
So here’s reading Prem Nath…
Prem Nath Malhotra was born in Peshawar. After Partition, his family settled in Jablapur, Madhya Pradesh. While in school, a disinterested Prem Nath would write letters to ‘idol’ Prithviraj Kapoor, also his relative, expressing his desire to join films.
His father being an Inspector General of Police sent him to the army instead. One day, Prem Nath wrote a letter to his father asking him for Rs 100 to buy a gun. With that amount, he fled to Mumbai and headed straight to Prithviraj Kapoor. He joined Prithvi Theatre.
His good-looks helped him make a debut with Mohan Dayaram Bhavnani’s film Ajit (1948). After Raj Kapoor’s Aag (1948), where he played a theatre owner and Barsaat (1949), which had him essay a wayward lover, Prem Nath’s popularity soared.
His bond with Raj Kapoor is also special because the Showman was married to Prem Nath’s sister, the late Krishna Raj Kapoor.
Prem Nath’s cavalier charm in Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952) had women swooning over him. An exercise enthusiast, Prem Nath’s chiselled body triggered female hysteria. Apparently, there were instances of female fans tearing off his clothes.
Films like Sagai (opposite Rehana), Buzdil and Dard-e-Dil (both opposite Nimmi) and Naujawan (with Nalini Jaywant) in the early ’50s, consolidated his position.
At one point, he was paid more than his peers, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. According to son/actor Monty Premnath, his father was paid Rs 1.25 lakh per day, while Raj Kapoor apparently got Rs 75,000, Dilip Kumar Rs 50,000 and Dev Anand Rs 35,000.
Prem Nath starred opposite Madhubala in the hit Badal (1951). Besotted by her beauty, he wanted to marry her. But religion played spoilsport.
Years after Madhubala had passed away, Prem Nath was once passing by her father, Ataullah Khan’s, home in Bandra. Khan was unwell and apparently facing bad times. Prem Nath paid him a visit and discreetly pushed an envelope under his pillow as a gesture of goodwill shared son Monty in an interview.
Bina Rai and Prem Nath first worked together in Aurat (1953). Nervous about facing the camera with a superstar, her fingers started trembling. Prem Nath was taken in by his co-star’s innocence. Gradually, they fell in love and got married.
Incidentally, Randhir Kapoor, a child then, sat on the horse with uncle Prem Nath as the sarwala (best man). Prem Nath and Bina Rai were blessed with two sons – Prem Kishen and Kailash Nath (Monty).
After marriage, the couple launched P.N. Films. Their first offering was Shagufa (1953), which flopped. The films that followed – Prisoner of Golconda (1954), Hamara Watan (1956), Samundar (1957) and Chengeez Khan (1957) – also fared poorly.
However, Bina Rai’s films like Anarkali (1953), Taj Mahal (1963) and Ghunghat (1960) with other heroes were hits. Ghunghat fetched her the Filmfare Award for Best Actress.
Things went downhill for Prem Nath between 1956 -1970.
“Since mom was doing well, producers would line up for her. Invitation cards were addressed as ‘Mr and Mrs Rai’. Papa was happy for her but somewhere his pride was hurt. In fact, Hrishikesh Mukherji based Abhimaan on my parents’ life,” revealed son Monty in an interview.
Tributes to gorgeous leading lady from golden era of Bollywood, #BinaRai on death anniversary 🙏
With husband/legendary actor #Premnath & family,
sons #MontyNath #PremKishen & grandson @monty_nath @sidpmalhotra @chintskap pic.twitter.com/KJ5titsgC2
— Movies N Memories (@BombayBasanti) December 6, 2019
A disappointed Prem Nath sought refuge in religion. He went off to Char Dhaam (Badrinath, Dwaraka, Puri and Rameswaram) for around 14 years. He wrote three books – Tears Of The Heart, Dil Ke Aansoo and Shraddhanjali – during this period.
In 1957, he made a documentary on Kailash Parbat. He returned in 1958. Assuming a spiritual avatar, he began donning saffron robes. He’d say, “My name is Prem Nath. Prem batne hi aaya hoon!”
He had stayed away from non-vegetarian food and alcohol during his tryst with spirituality. But when he developed kidney stones, the doctor advised him to have beer.
And then there was no looking back…
Prem Nath, a believer in astrology, knew he’d return to films. Vijay Anand’s Johny Mera Naam (1970) was his comeback film. He had told this to Dev Anand while shooting the thriller. The film, which had him play a smuggler masquerading as a prince, released on Prem Nath’s birthday.
Then on he went on to play titular roles in films like Chattansingh (1974) and Dharmatma (1975).
Reportedly, he charged more than 20 lakhs for a film. He lived the good life and travelled in an open Mercedes of which he had a fleet. Interestingly, a bunch of sadhus always accompanied him.
Veteran journalist Ali Peter John once wrote, “We were on our way to Panchgani for the shooting of Dhongee… In the open Mercedes ahead of us was Premnath bare-chested with six sadhus and astrologer Bejan Daruwala… Every five minutes… one of the sadhus or Prem Nath pulled out a live cock and… flung it on the road shouting ‘Bam Bam Bhole’. He later told me that it was the highest form of sacrifice...
Raj Kapoor, who was devastated after the debacle of Mera Naam Joker (1970), offered him a role in Bobby (1973). To get his act right, Prem Nath lived in the fisherman’s colony in Versova and observed their mannerisms. Raj Kapoor and he’d listen to Goanese tunes at the RK cottage in the evening. One of them was Ghe ghe ghe re Saiba, which was selected for Bobby.
Apparently, newcomer Subhash Ghai was given a chance to direct Kalicharan (1976) by producer NN Sippy on the condition that he rope in Prem Nath.
Prem Nath and Ghai went on to do blockbusters like Vishwanath (1978), Gautam Govinda (1979), Karz (1980) and Krodhi (1981).
In Karz, Prem Nath played the role of Sir Judah, a don who couldn’t speak. Those days, Prem Nath had developed neuritis and was not his usual self. Given his vociferous performances, he didn’t want to sound tame. Hence, his character was given a ‘silent’ twist.
There were rumours linking Prem Nath with his co-stars. But wife Bina and he stuck together through thick and thin. When Bina suffered a nervous breakdown and was finding it difficult to shoot for Daadi Maa (1966), he encouraged her to complete the film
Prem Nath’s last appearance was in Hum Dono (1985). The lifestyle he led was responsible for his failing health - too much work and too little sleep. A depression had set in. On November 3, 1992, he had breakfast, took his pills and went back to sleep. He passed away in his sleep. He was 65.
Reportedly, at his funeral Randhir Kapoor couldn’t help but comment, “Watch this man carefully, who knows this also must be a part of his madness and he may come back to life again.” But that was not to be. Years later, in 2009, Bina Rai too passed away in her sleep.