Time and again one comes across a statement that so and so film was way ahead of its times and hence it couldn’t do well at the box office. Same has also been said occasionally for Prem Granth, which was directed by Rajiv Kapoor who passed away earlier this year. Well, I have a different point of view. I don’t think that the film failed commercially since it was ahead of its times. As a matter it was outdated even back in 1996 when it released to much hype. With the whole village set up to it and the social stigma of rape as the central theme, it just didn’t strike a chord with the audiences and as a result underperformed big time at the box office.
Released on 31st May 1996, it has been exactly 25 years since its arrival. As a 19 year old Delhi university student who frequented all films FDFS, I was used to witnessing housefull board for every new release on the first set day, especially when there were credible names involved. Hence, it was surprising when I actually managed to get tickets with ease. That did raise an alarm bell. Nonetheless, I did step into the theater along with friends hoping that the RK Films offering would be an explosive drama.
The first half of the film is still decent. As a matter of fact the first 15 minutes totally catch you off guard as the caste divide, politics of worship, obstacles that the downtrodden face is all narrated wonderfully well by Rajiv Kapoor. Rishi Kapoor, son of a rich Dharmadhikari (Anupam Kher) stands up for a poor woman (Madhuri Dixit) and her father (Om Puri) as they try to make their way into a mandir in the face of adversity (Prem Chopra). Of course, a love story ensues too and though the rich-poor divide is inevitable, you go with the flow as Rishi Kapoor’s inherent charm works for the audience.
This is where one wonders though about the character detailing that was provided to Madhuri Dixit. It is quite awkward to see her acting and behaving as a 12 year old at many junctures. There is one thing to be cute and bubbly, and another to be totally way off track for a woman who is aware of her sexuality and is heard naughtily singing ‘Jungle Mein Sher’. In fact the way she and Om Puri are trapped by Govind Namdeo’s henchmen on an empty road makes one scratch head about what were they thinking.
No wonder, the whole ‘Babuji’ thing does get on your nerves, and once the tragedy takes place, the film only slows down further for a while before perking up again as the drama shifts to the dairy farm of Shammi Kapoor, who plays Rishi Kapoor’s uncle. Old fashioned twists and turns leading to confusions later in the play, the film does get back on track for a while with Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s music (Dil Dene Ki Ruth, Bajoo Bandh, Is Duniya Men Prem Granth) doing the trick. Really, music is one of the strong points of this two and a half hour long film and keeps your interest alive in the proceedings.
If there was anything left to be seen in the film, it’s the weak climax that further kills whatever impact that had been created so far. You have to watch it to believe it! The whole 70s and 80s style narrative was way too weak for this film released in 1996 that had seen commercial entertainers like Ghatak, Agni Sakshi, Jeet and Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi winning over massy audiences. Yes, there was another old fashioned romance, Raja Hindustani, that had topped the box office charts to emerge as an all time blockbuster. However, the Aamir Khan and Karisma Kapoor starrer was once in a decade phenomenon in the year where Prem Granth was at least a couple of decades too late.