By 1973 Rajesh Khanna had reached the pinnacle of glory. For the next few years, his popularity hit a plateau before plunging into a tailspin. Thus, even in 1974, the actor retained his Midas touch at the all important box office, enabling him to deliver hits like “Prem Nagar”, remake of a Telugu film which was also made in Tamil (“Vasantha Maligai”) starring the Sivaji Ganesan.
Other than Khanna’s redoubtable screen profile, the K.S. Prakash Rao directed film banks heavily on the music for its success. Scored by the legendary SD Burman to lyrics by Anand Bakshi, most of the songs, including the Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar number “Kiska mahal hai kiska yeh ghar hai” are chartbusters. Other songs which retain their charm till date are “Yeh kaisa sur mandir” (Lata Mangeshkar) and “Yeh lal rang kab mujhe chhorega” (Kishore Kumar). To Rao’s credit, each song is woven into the screenplay and carries the story forward and none of them seems out of place or added just for the sake of prolonging the film’s running time, which, at two hours thirty eight minutes is anyway quite substantial.
The film starts when an inebriated Karan Singh (Khanna is a perfect choice for the role, the drunkard scion of a royal family, blessed with a heart of gold) comes in contact with an air hostess Lata (Hema Malini), who looks ethereal and extremely beautiful, during a flight in which the airplane encounters a great deal of turbulence. Her chemistry with Khanna is remarkable, as is her screen presence, something which puts to rest her deficiency in terms of histrionics or scenes that require high octane acting prowess. Lata’s mother (Sulochana), scarred by the incident, prevails over her daughter to opt for a less risky profession.
Although he lives an ostentatious lifestyle, overflowing with alcohol and a bevy of beauties, Karan’s moorings are in sharp contrast to his elder sibling, Shamsher (Prem Chopra, dapper and mean as ever), who is a terror for poor subjects of the estate. This brutal attitude brings him in constant conflict with Karan, whose heart goes out for the welfare of poor peasants.
Predictably, Lata and Karan’s paths cross once again, when Lata is saved from the clutches of a rogue boss, when she goes to attend an interview for a receptionist’s job. Further encounters between the two lead to Karan Singh employing her as his secretary, and takes her to his estate, Anand Nagar.
On reaching there, Lata comes to know that Karan’s mother, Rani Maa (Kamini Kaushal) had neglected him when he was a child, which led to his becoming an alcoholic. Prompted by his Machiavellian wife (Bindu), Shamsher exhorts his mother to divide the property between the two brothers. With connivance of the Diwan (David in a rare negative role), arrangements are made to dupe Karan of his due share, by giving him a pittance. However, at the last moment, with the timely intervention of Lata, the seemingly inevitable catastrophe is avoided. An obliged Karan, supported by Lata, who has now become his love interest, decides to quit drinking and concentrate on the management of his estate.
To profess his undying love, he even gets a palace, Prem Nagar made in her honor.
The failure of his evil plan infuriates Shamsher, who frames Lata in the case of a theft with the help of his sidekick (Asrani, the exceptionally talented actor, whose acting prowess was inhibited due to typecast roles). Although Karan refuses to believe that Lata could stoop to the extent of stealing a valuable necklace from the estate temple, circumstances force him to go along with his mother.
A dejected and heartbroken Lata leaves the estate, and goes to her parents’ home, where her good for nothing brother arranges to get her married. In the meantime an aggrieved Karan comes to know the truth, and strives to seek forgiveness from Lata even as his health deteriorates as he has quit drinking. Although doctors advise him to consume the same in small quantities, he refuses, vowing to uphold a promise made to Lata.
On the day that Lata is to get married, Karan makes a final bid to convince her of his heartfelt remorse, but when she refuses to relent, he leaves after blessing her. The entire scenario is viewed by Lata’s prospective mother-in-law, who doubts her character and decides to call off the wedding at the nick of time.
Therein starts a conflict in Lata’s mind as to the prudence of her decision in spurning Karan’s efforts for forgiveness. The doubt in her mind is cleared by Rani Maa, who accepts her as Karan’s wife. Meanwhile, a deeply aggrieved Karan, in the midst of mental upheaval and angst, is on the verge of taking his own life. Will Lata be able to reach him before he does the final act? Will the two live a happy life, ever after? The story by Kausalya Devi holds the key. Interestingly, dialogues by Inder Raj Anand add punch to the proceedings. However, in a scenario which is perhaps unique in itself, the credits also list a dialogue director, Raj Baldev Raj.
Technically the film scores highly on all spheres. For most parts, art direction by S. Krishna Rao is in sync with the direction, as is the cinematography by A. Vincent, which won him the Filmfare Best Cinematographer Award. The film also bagged Filmfare nominations for the best actor and actress for Khanna and Hema Malini respectively, and for the best music score. Editing by K.A. Marthand and J. Narasimha Rao is slick and keeps the story moving at a steady pace, with no room for slackness.