Whatever one´s tastes and preferences in Hindi cinema there should be no doubt that Amar Prem is an enduring achievement. While it is possible to maintain (as I certainly do) that Aradhana or Kati Patang or even the earlier Howrah Bridge are the director´s more complete films yet Amar Prem is surely the more ambitious attempt, and despite the relative flaws the more extraordinary film. Amar Prem hearkens to an era when scripts could often be thought provoking, dialogues often literary, music often profound and consonant with the mood of the lyrics. It is fair to suggest that such an age is for Hindi cinema very much part of the past and hence it is even more essential that a film like Amar Prem be revisited and reappraised.
Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) is turned out of her house by an abusive husband who in addition to indulging in the most atrocious behavior imaginable also remarries. Pushpa is forced to return to her village where she quickly becomes the target of the cruelest gossip. Looking for a source of income to support her mother, she falls prey to the very slimy and nefarious Nepal Babu (Madan Puri), a village acquaintance, who on the pretext of getting her work takes her to Calcutta and sets her up in a brothel. Here Pushpa meets the very wealthy Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna) who is himself the victim of a loveless marriage. He falls in love with her and correctly realizes her ´worth´. The other pivotal relationship in the film connects Pushpa to Nandu, who is Mahesh Babu´s (Sujit Kumar) son. Mahesh himself hails from Pushpa´s village and has in fact known her briefly prior to this. Nandu has a stepmother (Bindu) who ill-treats him and Pushpa thus becomes a surrogate mother for him. Eventually Nandu´s family moves away, and Pushpa owing to pressures for Anand Babu´s in-laws asks Anand Babu to stop visiting her. Years pass, Nandu grows up and returns to Calcutta and the stage is set for a grand reunion involving him, Pushpa, and Anand Babu.
Amar Prem is not a very plot-oriented movie. The strength of the subject is translated onto the screen chiefly by way of very moving scenes. Even though there is a great deal of sentimentality to the proceedings there are few Hindi films that touch one more than Amar Prem. The scenes between Pushpa and Nandu are simply marvelous in this regard and those between Pushpa and Anand Babu are no less so. Shakti Samantha masterfully and incisively portrays the cruelties of bourgeois sociality. Whether it is the treatment meted out to Pushpa at the hands of her village acquaintances or that which the denizens of her urban neighborhood subject her to, the violence of the system is brought home very effectively. But Samantha goes through the proceedings with a great deal of irony. The families in this film, both rural and urban, are very oppressive structures that serve to suffocate human freedom and potentiality more than anything else. On the other hand the analogous family establishment involving the brothel workers and their clients is more of an approximation of this ideal in terms of the safety nets that it allows. Similarly there is just the pretence of religious and cultural values in a family like Mahesh Babu´s whereas it is Pushpa who is more un hypocritically religious and ethical in all her dealings. But these families do intersect and this is the chief irony of the film. For the supposed proprietors of values end up quite frequently in the inversely mirrored world of the brothel families. It is here that they give the lie to their belief systems not just by being plainly hypocritical but also by establishing more meaningful relationships. A couplet from one of the songs could very easily serve as the theme of the film --hum ko jo taane dete hain, hum khoye hain in rang raliyon mein/ hum ne bhi unko chup chup ke, aate dekha in galiyon mein. The brothel emerges out of human sociality and follows very much the logic of these systems; it is in no way part of a vacuum.
Structurally however, there are some weaknesses in the film. Shakti Samantha tends to cover, twice within his subject, significant timelines without really providing the proper narrative backup for such changes. In the first instance, after Anand Babu is introduced to Pushpa and the child Nandu has also been introduced, a period of four or five years suddenly elapses. Similarly after Nandu´s family moves away an even larger time period passes and Nandu is seen in the next frame as an adult. In a work as controlled in its effects as this one these sequences suggest a strong degree of directorial intrusion. One is left with the sense that the director simply needed to move the story forward and did not have an effective enough plot devices to do so. The second problem with the story is that Pushpa´s exact status at the brothel is left ambiguous as are the details of her relationship with Anand Babu. While it is obvious that the women working at this establishment have clients, often permanent ones who employ their services solely, it is never entirely clear if Pushpa shares a sexual relationship with Anand Babu. They are only shown talking to each other. It can be fairly assumed though that he is her first client as he does run into her rather soon after Pushpa has been initiated into the setup. Why this detail matters is because the director on a commercial level is left with the task of preserving the image of Pushpa as a symbol of purity in the mind of his audience and as such he has to forgo some of the more authentic and sordid aspects of this world. What he does represent is essentially a very deep and emotional relationship between the lovers but one, which is shorn of any sexuality. In a film that is otherwise rather realistic this set of gaps is rather difficult to ignore. And in any case the logic of the story begs for this kind of overt contrast. The woman who is most lacking in character from a societal perspective, the one loosest in terms of her sexual mores, is still the most moral person in the play. The same could be stated in a different sense for Anand Babu. Conversely Anand Babu´s wife (never shown) and Mahesh Babu´s wife, even though they belong to ´respectable´ setups are found to be very lacking in morality and ethics. It would have made for an even better film if the director had been a bit more courageous in this respect.
The film belongs to Sharmila Tagore as far as performances go. She preserves fully the dignity of the character even as she skillfully walks the audience through all the traumatic moments of the character´s life. The viewer empathizes with the character but at the same time respects her at each stage of her life. Rajesh Khanna was never a great actor but he was always a very effective star during this remarkable period of his career. As Anand Babu he does a fair job of capturing what is the absurdity perspective of his character. It is more posturing than performance but in the world of the Calcutta bourgeoisie it works! The rest of the cast also lends competent support for the most part.
There can be no mention of Amar Prem without also bringing into focus R D Burman´s soundtrack which is one of Hindi cinema´s summits. As a combination of pure lyricism, melodious music, and philosophical mood there are few albums in cinematic history that have hit such notes and as such are comparable to this one. The music of Amar Prem is one of the touchstones for sublimity in the medium. The astonishing numbers range from the meditative Chingari koi bhadke, Yeh kya hua and Kuch to log kahenge to the charming folklore quality of Bada Natkhat hai to the rustic rhythms of Doli mein bithaike. R D Burman never produced better work though it is a tribute to his genius that he does have comparable soundtracks. And this soundtrack is certainly also among Kishore Kumar´s peaks.
It is a film like Amar Prem that provides the standards by which good cinema may be distinguished from bad cinema. It is this kind of film that establishes the norms whereby every department of filmmaking can be sanely appraised. Much can be learnt about the glories of Hindi cinema from this film. Until this sort of exercise takes place the medium will for the most part keep producing the abominations we have been subjected to over the last decade or so.