There’s a scene in Amar Prem in which Rajesh Khanna says, “Agar koi apna nah ho kar bhi bahut apna ho, toh use kya kehte hain? Bahut pyaara rishta hai na?” (If someone who isn’t your own kin is so deeply your own, then what does one call it? It’s a lovely relationship, isn’t it?)
This, in a sense, is the philosophy of Shakti Samanta’s beautiful 1972 movie about an abused woman who is sold into a brothel where she finds not one, but two real loves, the kind that may not have a stamp of approval from the world, but are all the more pure for it.
Philosophy seems like a bit of a stretch for a romantic Hindi movie, but you don’t even need to watch the movie to understand that it’s no exaggeration. Just listen to the music. R.D. Burman’s genius, of course, shone through in the voices of his singers, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and, for one song, his own father, S.D. Burman.
But even this holy quartet of Hindi film music wasn’t enough to transform the soundtrack from beautiful to spiritual. That elevation came in the form of the lyrics by Anand Bakshi.
In his four-decade career, Bakshi wrote the lyrics for thousands of songs, but what he did with the music of Amar Prem goes beyond writing the words. He gave the movie its soul. In the week of his death anniversary, this is the perfect movie to celebrate him.
Love doesn’t always mean being together
Sharmila Tagore plays Pushpa, whose husband throws her out of the house after marrying another woman. A man from her village sells her to a brothel in Calcutta, and although this was never the kind of life she had imagined for herself, Pushpa finds friendship among the women of the establishment and a loving relationship with Anand (Khanna), who comes to the brothel to escape his unhappy marriage and becomes her regular client.
Raina Beeti Jaaye is Anand and Pushpa’s meet-cute, a Meera bhajan with its roots in Hindustani classical music. With Lata Mangeshkar’s voice, Sharmila Tagore’s perfectly lined, expressive eyes betraying her shyness, and his tender “Gaaiye na? Aap ruk kyun gayin?” (Sing, no? Why did you stop?) betraying his instant, unalloyed attraction to her, it is a scene of pure passion without any physical contact.
Anand and Pushpa’s love is never labelled, but is shown beautifully through small touches, such as the samosas and kachoris he starts bringing around for Pushpa’s neighbour, a child named Nandu, who is abused by his stepmother and finds refuge in Pushpa’s mothering. This is another relationship that has no name and doesn’t need one. But of course, people don’t understand this, so they do their best to keep Pushpa away from both Anand and Nandu.
Anand doesn’t care what people think, and he seems flippant and sometimes insensitive to Pushpa’s fears and sadness (his “Pushpa, I hate tears” became an iconic line), but actually, he knows just how to make her smile through those tears. Like when he sings the famous Kuch Toh Log Kahenge, Logon Ka Kaam Hai Kehna, a simple idea that becomes a way of life.
An intensely brooding song, full of melancholy as well as desire, is Chingari Koi Bhadke. The song comes when Pushpa has just found out that her mother has been dead for a long time and no one told her. Anand sees her devastation and decides to take her out for a boat ride on the Hooghly, with the city’s iconic Howrah Bridge shimmering softly in the background.
One of the movie’s most heartbreaking songs, though, isn’t one you’ll find on romantic playlists. The movie opens with S.D. Burman singing Doli Mein Bithai Ke, while Pushpa, her back burnt with iron rods courtesy her husband, is walking to her mother’s house. The idea of a doli or wedding palanquin is turned on its head as she walks, alone and injured, away from her husband, while Burman sings of broken dreams.
Years later, Pushpa, no longer a prostitute, works as domestic help and is routinely, again abused. In a strange twist of fate, one of the men staying in the complex where she works is her now blind, widowed, ailing husband who had abused, tortured and evicted her. His death brings about a strange sort of closure for her; when she breaks the wedding bangles that she never took off in all these years, Doli Mein Bithai Ke plays again.