Seven years ago a pretty primary school teacher from Bombay won a beauty competition that had her cover-paged by the leading women’s magazines. And when she went on to win awards in the international competitions, it looked as if she had the world at her feet and film stardom knocking feverishly at her door.
And when we heard that Prema Narayan had actually been offered contracts, we nodded sagely and kind of waited for the big bang that would have told us she was there. We waited, and waited, and waited. And saw pretty Prema slide into film business with “Ma, Bahen Aur Biwi” in 1974 with scarcely a ripple much less a splash.
Since then, Prema, who comes from a family with its roots in film (she says), has been playing village belles, gangsters’ molls and silent, suffering lovers with dreary monotony, hovering on the edges of public consciousness with an occasional foray into the world of heroines in B grade movies.
So we had Prema in “Manzilen Aur Bhi Hain”, “Jab Andhera Hota Hai”, “My Friend” and about eight other films that made little or no impact. Enough to make Job rail at fate, grow thin and bitter and look for the shortest way out.
But Prema isn’t crying, as I discovered when I went to interview her. She lives in a tall building at Bandra, a most “unfilmy” high rise with nice, normal families on the other floors, a lift that needs its button pressed very hard to go up or down and food smells floating out of doors. Her flat is large, airy and much too large for three people (mother and grandmother). Which is why she is moving out soon, to something smaller, where perhaps she can have a garden and a dog.
She isn’t crying about anything as I found out. For I expected to meet some kind of a non-person, someone who was content to be an occasional reference in a film magazine that talked about Benjamin Gilani or Shabana Azmi or Nafeesa Ali. An appendage of an appendage, so to speak.
And Prema opened the door, looking scrubbed and fresh and very attractive, with not a trace of tears on her face. And early in the interview she made it clear that she likes what she is doing, accepts the fact that she may never play a heroine under a big banner, is unconcerned that the gossip magazines consider her too small fry to gossip about. You see, nobody forced her into films. This is what she wanted to do.
She was first offered a role in a B.R. Ishara film, but refused, because of his “reputation” and also because she wasn’t interested. Then came Mahesh Bhatt and “Manzilen” and Prema took the plunge.
About her career she said, “I don’t know what people really think about me. They say that I am talented, good-looking, hardworking, and wonder why I haven’t made it to the top.I know why. It was because I came in under a small banner and producers are unwilling to gamble on newcomers who haven’t been adequately introduced. It’s difficult to get a break”.
No regrets, for Prema “enjoys every bit of it. That side of me is satisfied.” Left to herself, she would even be happy all the time, but people keep badgering her about why she hasn’t made it to the top of the glass mountain.
“I don’t for a minute regret what I’ve done. If I did, I would have left long ago and there is nothing to stop me doing so. I enjoy doing character acting. After all, a heroine has such a short life while a character actress can go on and on. And what do our heroines do that’s extraordinary? Most of them just sing and cry.” I tried to detect a trace of sour grapes but couldn’t, all that came through was an engaging honesty.
There is a wistful note in her voice though, as she tells how seriously she takes her career, how she likes to study each role she is offered and seldom gets the opportunity to, as most producers and directors come to her at the last minute when there is no time. She loved her role in “Manzilen” which was very well etched (horrid word) and also in “Amanush” where Shakti Samanta took the trouble to explain exactly what he wanted. She played a prostitute in the former and a village belle (what else) in the latter, and her roles were compact and relevant to the plot.
“Busy enough? Of course I’m busy. I don’t work three shifts and worry and try too hard, but I have enough to keep me busy”, she said, laughing all the time. At present she is doing “Barsaat Ki Ek Raat” for “Shaktiji”, with Raakhee and Amitabh Bachchan, and “Lahoo Ke Do Rang”, where she plays a gangster’s moll who dies in the end, “Prem Bandhan” and a Bhojpuri film. Also, she was very excited about her first venture into the field of comedy roles in “Do Ladke, Dono Kadke”, being directed by Basu Chatterji.
She doesn’t feel exploited, though some producers have played her dirty, chopping out scenes that she slogged over. She reacts by putting them into a little black book at the back of her mind and never working with them again. She is sensible, hardheaded, with both feet planted firmly on the ground.
She is basically a happy girl. In spite of a career that seems to be taking too long to “take-off”, a love affair that soured. For her honesty made her admit that there was a time when she and Benjamin were going very steady and then drifted apart. “It’s better this way”, she said. “Nafeesa did not have very much to do with it. The rot had already set in and she was just a kind of catalyst”. She added that no one was to blame.
And anyway, films are not the only thing in her life. She is interested in dancing and would like to perfect her Kathak. She loves travelling and has seen most of India, Singapore, the U.S.A. and England. Another love is shopping and she hates parties as they make her uncomfortable.
“I don’t need excuses to stay on in films. Like I’m waiting for a big break or I have nothing better to do or I’m afraid to get out. I’m enjoying myself and there is no question of regrets.”
So I left and as I came out of the building, I heard her call my name and she waved the umbrella that I had left behind. “Throw it” I said, and she did from the sixth floor and at the last minute I chickened out and let it fall to the ground. The handle smashed and I was glad because it gave me an excuse to change something I hated but tolerated. I looked up and lied “It’s still in one piece” and Prema smiled, uncertainly. For she probably wouldn’t understand about excuses. She doesn’t need them (Interview conducted by Carol D’Souza in 1978).