The following post is written by Joe Bruner, student at Columbia Law, and printed with permission.
I don’t often review older movies; I feel most aren’t worth my perspective when one already has what towering visionaries have to say about them. But he did not review this movie; In fact, I have only found one piece of evidence that anyone who isn’t South Asian has even seen it.
Bollywood cinema is renowned, or perhaps stereotyped, as one of the world’s last cinematic realms of fantasy and melodrama, where practical considerations and realism never get in the way of telling an excellent story. It is perhaps Amar Prem’s Bengali literature roots that allow it to attempt and succeed at doing something radically different than a heroic tale involving elaborate song-and-dance numbers worth of Broadway. It is a moving epic led by a tragic heroine, a biting social satire deconstructing traditional Indian mores, and a deeply personal story of love and redemption all at once. And, when watching it achieve such a mixture of goals, it is difficult not to feel both better and worse that it is startlingly realistic.
While Amar Prem was bolstered by having a leading pair at the height of their careers, Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna, it was critically underappreciated both within and without India. This was in part because the screenplay reverses what is the most traditional character arc in Bollywood cinema and perhaps in world literature: Instead of acting as a vehicle for the male character’s development (as in Anand, where Rajesh previously carried a director to the Best Film Award, and Be-Imaan, which won it in Amar Prem’s year), Rajesh’s character exists most fundamentally to provide a vehicle for Pushpa’s (Sharmila Tagore) redemption.
However, being female-centered is not, in and of itself, a sufficient explanation for why Amar Prem wasn’t more widely recognized: Mother India (1957) and Tagore’s own Devi (1960) managed to achieve critical acclaim within and outside of India while being directly centered on women protagonists and their difficult experiences within the India of the time. The worst sin the screenplay commits is its biting indictment of contemporaneous Indian society.
The film opens with a dejected and subtly angry Pushpa walking through an Indian farming village as a song plays about leaving one’s husband’s house after one dies. She reveals to her mother that she has been cast out – infertile and unable to bear children, her husband remarried and ordered her to leave, with his family beating her until she did. Worse, her own mother does not believe her until she reveals massive burn scars, and still tells her she must find somewhere else to go due to a lack of money. Alone, a childhood friend offers her some money, but after she takes it, demands she meet him after dark and sleep with him. Pushpa refuses, but a rumor spreads that she prostituted herself, and her own mother orders her to commit suicide.
In a film industry relentlessly mocked for over-acting, Tagore delivers a stunningly unique portrayal of an abuse victim in the film medium. Subtle and restrained, she shows anger, even disappointment, but is never surprised, as this is how she has become accustomed to being treated. Surprise is left for the audience, and for when after being trafficked into a brothel, Khanna’s character, Anand, shows elation and appreciation for Pushpa’s classical Hindi singing. In stark contrast with the hyper-dramatic monolithic presentation of PTSD typically used to salaciously depict abuse victims in American cinema, Sharmila Tagore, with measured restraint and quiet dignity, reveals that what actually surprises her character is to be valued.
Despite stereotypes of Bollywood, the movie does not proceed in the obvious direction from this point towards a happy ending – while the ending is far more complicated, not to spoil it, but it depicts with both sympathy and crushing realism the difficulties likely to emerge from such a relationship.