It's nostalgia all the way at 82-year-old Kulwant Singh Kohli's office on the ground level of Hotel Midtown Pritam in Dadar, as he flips through a stack of sepia-toned photographs, dating back to 1960s and '70s, along with his 36-year-old grandson, Abhayraj Singh Kohli. Pointing to one with Raj Kapoor, he shares, "Kapoor saab inaugurated Pritam restaurant in 1975 after we renovated it into a centrally air-conditioned space. He was such a nice man. When I called him to ask if I could send him an invite, he said that a formal invitation was unnecessary. A phone call was enough."
Kulwant Singh Kohli (left) with grandson Abhayraj Singh Kohli at Pritam. Pics/Shadab Khan
Stashes of photos of senior Kohli bonding with yesteryear icons like Sanjeev Kumar, Manoj Kumar and Rajendra Kumar fill his office. "As film studios were nearby, actors would drop by for meals. I have also worked with BR Chopra, Chetan Anand and Kamal Amrohi since we had started Sangeeta Film Corporation in 1970. We were world right controllers and distributors (Bombay territory) of 18 films, starting with Pakeezah, and other hits like The Burning Train,"he recounts. By end of the year, many photo frames will grace the walls of Pritam Restaurant & Bar in the adjacent building. "The idea is to re-brand the company and allow guests to walk down memory lane,"says junior Kohli, who has a Masters in Hospitality Management from New York's Cornell University and is the brain behind the parent company's launches, Grandmama's Café (Dadar and Lower Parel) and MRP (My Regular Place).
Pritam Hotel building was purchased by the Kohlis in 1966
Kohli's father, Prahlad Singh Kohli travelled from Rawalpindi to Mumbai in 1942, against his family's wishes ("the restaurant business was considered a bad one") to launch Pritam restaurant, a tiny eatery with seven tables and a cash counter. "He had initially opened it in Chira Bazaar but that shut down and he lost all his money. So, he came to Dadar, which was largely populated by labour class and bought a shop for R100. He hoped to get clients from the film industry, due to studios, and that's what happened,"recalls Kohli.
Raj Kapoor at the inauguration of the renovated, centrally air-conditioned Pritam in 1975
From Sunil Dutt to Raaj Kumar, Dharmendra and Shankar-Jaikishan, they relished Pritam's North Indian fare, cooked under supervision of Kohli's mother, Harkaur. "We didn't have a menu until 1975. We would mainly offer Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Masala, Butter Chicken, Mutton Kheema and Fish Fry. At that time, Mumbaikars didn't know what Butter Chicken was."says the senior Kohli, revealing the original recipe. Pritam also offered monthly meals at Rs 19 (once a day) and Rs 38 (twice a day). "Many actors were strugglers then, and would opt for the meals,"he adds.
Kohli (second from left) with Rajendra Kumar (centre) and Dilip Kumar (extreme right)
Change is good
With both his sons, Amardeep (Abhayraj's father) and Gurbarish Singh Kohli joining the business in the 70s, the clan expanded Pritam Restaurant by taking over the area's shops, buying the building — where they reside — and the next-door land too, to open the four-star Hotel Midtown Pritam in 1988.
A younger Kohli with Kamal Amrohi and Raaj Kumar when they collaborated for distributing Pakeezah through Kohli’s Sangeeta Film Corporation
"We wanted to wipe out competition,"laughs Kohli junior as his grandfather rues, "Honestly, our ideas are outdated because the guests at restaurants have changed. It's no longer about children accompanying their parents but vice versa."When we ask if a revamp means a change in flavours, he asserts, "The walls will tell a new story but the food won't. It will always be wholesome North Indian food, which is not diet food but a meal for the masses with familiar flavours."
With Hillary Clinton, 2004-05
Opened in 1985 as an extension to Pritam Restaurant, Pritam da Dhaba was one of Mumbai’s first open-air eateries that offered a rustic vibe with charpoys and open kitchens. “I had gone to the US for a bypass after suffering from a heart attack; on my return, I spotted the cots and wondered what my kids were up to. Even the staff seems to sleep here. But after they shared the concept, I loved it. The dhaba is their gift to me.” Junior Kohli shares that the dhaba section will also see changes, “We will offer fare inspired from the famous highway dhabas across India and also, give them credit. Instead of eating dhaba food elsewhere, our guests will experience the culture right here.”
Did you know?
While no one in the clan has been christened as Pritam, Prahlad Singh Kohli wanted a name that meant beloved in as many Indian languages as possible and hence, chose Pritam.