Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman starrer – ‘Prem Shastra’ (1973) directed by BR Ishara tanked at the box office because it lacked conviction

Dev Anand in the film ‘Prem Shastra’
Dev Anand in the film ‘Prem Shastra’

Come February and invariably there would be talk about the greatest romantic films. While most lists would prominently feature Dev Anand films only a few would actually mention the ones where the narrative explored love beyond the standard definition. Among the mainstream films exploring the somewhat bolder or even darker shades of love that Dev Anand did – ‘Namoona’ (Hira Singh, 1949) one of the earliest Hindi films to border on incest and ‘Bambai Ka Babu’ (Raj Khosla, 1960) where Dev Anand’s character lies to become the lost son of rich man only to realise that the girl (Suchitra Sen) he loves is now his sister – the one that often goes unnoticed is ‘Prem Shastra’ (BR Ishara, 1973). The execution of ‘Prem Shastra’ might have been subpar, the music by and large a letdown but the manner in which the narrative explored the element of physical love and how it changes in nature when viewed through the prism pre-defined relationships makes the film worth a revisit. 

A writer, Sagar (Dev Anand) meets Barkha (Zeenat Aman), a much younger woman, and there is an instant attraction between the two. Barkha is also a fan of Sagar’s writing and while she leaves no stone unturned to express how much she loves him, Sagar tries to resist her but can’t help fall in love. They decided to meet a few months later under better circumstances; namely when Sagar finally gets a divorce from his long-estranged wife, Neelima (Bindu). Sagar tries to convince Neelima to free him for they have been living separately for years now but Neelima is intrigued about his timing. Sagar tells her that there might be someone else but before he can go any further he is shocked to see Barkha enter the house. Barkha is Neelima’s daughter from a previous marriage that Sagar was not aware of. Troubled that he could be falling in love with his stepdaughter, Sagar’s life is further complicated when Neelima reveals that she had in fact, had an affair with his own elder brother and Barkha could be his daughter. Sagar and Barkha then go on a mission to find out the truth. 

In the years between ‘Bambai Ka Babu’ and ‘Prem Shastra’ Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman featured in two more films that looked at complicated love. In ‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’ (Dev Anand, 1971) Prashant (Dev Anand) tries to save his estranged sister, Jasbir/ Janice (Zeenat Aman) from the quicksand of drugs that she is sucked into but unaware of their relationship Janice falls in love with Prashant. Later when she learns the reality she chooses to die instead of living with brotherly love. In ‘Heera Panna’ (Dev Anand, 1973) Heera (Dev Anand) knows that Panna (Zeenat Aman), a member of a gang of diamond smugglers, is the sister of his dead lover (Rakhee) and feels responsible enough to try to save her but she falls for him. Later she dies saving him but not before knowing he would never replace her dead sister with her.

By the end of ‘Prem Shastra’, the audience realises that like ‘Heera Panna’ some part of the narrative was unnecessarily complicated but that does not diminish the dramatic tension. The film was the final part of a silent trilogy of sorts that Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman were a part of – ‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’, Heera Panna and finally, ‘Prem Shastra’. If the first was a great statement on the counterculture of the hippie movement of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the second was a brilliant treatise on the interpretation of relationships in an Indian context. What could have been the most powerful statement across the trilogy, ‘Prem Shastra’, unfortunately, ended up falling woefully short. Much of it is the lack of conviction that the director had in the subject, which is very strange because Ishara was one of the few filmmakers of the 1970s that took to such themes like fish to water. His films explored the hidden duplicity of the middle-class when it came to sex and one of his initial films ‘Zaroorat’ (1972) got stuck in censor hell thanks to some detailed sex scenes. By the time the film released Ishara had already made ‘Chetna’ (1970), the film that firmly established his flair for the genre.    

Perhaps it was not as much as BR Ishara’s lack of conviction in ‘Prem Shastra’ as it could have been his inability to get himself to direct Dev Anand, one of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars ever, as he would have had it been someone else. Ishara had discovered Reena Roy, Vijay Arora, and Danny Denzongpa and launched them in ‘Zaroorat’ and extracted some wonderful performances from Shatrughan Sinha, Anil Dhawan and Rehana Sultan, whom he later married. 

Unlike most Dev Anand films, ‘Prem Shastra’s music (Laxmikant-Pyarelal) also fell short but for a wonderful opening theme and the zany Kishore Kumar-Asha Bhosle number, “Mujhe pyar kar” (lyrics - Anand Bakshi). Irrespective of being hardly remembered, ‘Prem Shastra’ is still a film that makes you think just how did they manage to come up with something like this within the confines of popular Hindi cinema?