As someone whose short list of favorite Bollywood movies would include Devdas (2002), Umrao Jaan (1981), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), and Sadhna (1958)—don't ask me for the other titles on the list right now—I've clearly got a major weakness for tragic-courtesan-with-a-heart-of-gold stories. And the creators of Amar Prem (Immortal Love, 1972), director Shakti Samanta and writers Arabinda Mukherjee and Ramesh Pant, know exactly how to push my emotional buttons.
Mukherjee was the writer and director of the original Bengali version of the film, Nishipadma (1970), which was based on the short story "Hinger Kochuri" by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. (Hinger kochuri is a typical Bengali dish of fried dough stuffed with lentils and chickpeas.) If Bandopadhyay's name sounds vaguely familiar, he was also the author of the novels Pather Panchali (1929) and Aparajito (1932), which Satyajit Ray adapted as The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959).
The childless Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) is violently driven away from her village home by the brutality of her husband and his second wife. As Pushpa is about to commit suicide, a solicitous neighbor, Nepali Babu (Madan Puri), stops her and offers her a job in Calcutta. Of course, the job is fictional, and Pushpa discovers too late that she has been sold to a brothel. On the first night that she performs for the brothel's clients, singing "Raina beeti jaye, Shyam na aaye" (The night has passed, and Shyam (Krishna) has not yet arrived), the drunken Anand (Rajesh Khanna) follows the sound of her voice and is instantly smitten (click on the CC button for English subtitles):
Tawaif movies tend to have excellent music, and Amar Prem is no exception. The songs were composed by R. D. Burman, with lyrics by Anand Bakshi, and were performed by Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and R. D. Burman's father S. D. Burman.
The wealthy Anand is trapped in an unhappy marriage to an faithless wife, and has been drowning his sorrows in drink and the allurements of the pleasure quarter. He immediately becomes Pushpa's patron. Although they quickly fall in love, they each recognize that they'll remain forever separated by caste and status. The melancholy mood is beautifully sustained in "Chingari koi bhadke" (A raging fire), as Anand and Pushpa drift on the Hooghly River at night:
Meanwhile, the Sharmas, a couple from Pushpa's village, move in across the way from her. Their 8-year-old son, Nandu (Bobby), is mistreated by his stepmother (Bindu) and finds a refuge with Pushpa. She, in turn, sees in him the child she never had, and lavishes affection on him.
Of course, the tenuous happiness of Anand, Pushpa, and Nandu can't be permitted to continue, as it's an implicit critique of the lovelessness of the more conventional relationships that surround them. Anand's brother-in-law (Rakesh Pandey) demands that Pushpa separate from Anand. Meanwhile, Nandu's stepmother forces Pushpa to agree never to see Nandu again; before Nandu's family takes him back to the village, though, Nandu gives Pushpa a cutting of night-blooming jasmine that she literally waters with her tears.
Twenty years later the night-blooming jasmine is a flourishing tree, and the adult Nandu (Vinod Mehra), now an engineer, returns to Calcutta. Will Nandu ever find the woman he thinks of as his real mother...?
Almost every socially-sanctioned union in the film—Anand with his unfaithful wife, Pushpa with her violent husband, and the unhappy Sharmas—seems to offer nothing but misery and emotional deprivation. The only happy marriage in the film is that of the adult Nandu with his wife (Farida Jalal). Amar Prem remains radical more than 40 years on for suggesting that true families are those formed by love.
Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can view Amar Prem online, for free, with English closed captioning.