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50 Years of ‘Amar Prem’: Gen-Z Watches This Classic Sob-Fest

'Amar Prem' is all about its plot, music, and Pushpa (I hate tears).

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My first memory of Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore’s Amar Prem is that of ‘Raina Beeti Jaye...’ playing from my mother’s old radio. Full disclosure, I had watched snippets of the film before but only now understand any of it. To summarise, everyone is crying and everyone ‘hates tears’.

'Amar Prem' is all about its plot, music, and Pushpa (I hate tears).

Me watching Amar Prem.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube Screengrab)

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To aid your understanding, Amar Prem, written by Arabinda Mukherjee and directed by Shakti Samanta, opens with Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) being thrown out of the house by her husband and his new wife. When she goes home, her mother isn’t particularly psyched to see her and it only takes one piece of gossip for her to turn on her daughter. A man from her village, Nepal Babu (Madan Puri) sends her to a brothel in Calcutta.

Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna) is drawn to the brothel, entranced by Pushpa’s voice (enter: ‘Raina Beeti Jaye...’) and goes on to visit her frequently.

Another catalyst to Pushpa’s story, and this IS Pushpa’s film, is the neighbourhood kid Nandu (Master Bobby). Nandu is the son of a widowed man who moves to the colony with his new wife and kids. Putting Cinderella to shame, Nandu’s stepmother is apathetic towards him, at her best. Amar Prem is bad PR for Bollywood mothers - the anti-Nirupa Roy.

A Sex Worker as a Protagonist? How Does ‘Amar Prem’ fare?

The setting of the first half forms one of the crucial underlying themes of the film- society’s bigoted perception of sex work. Pushpa becomes invisible to the people from her own village to the point where Babu tells her she is ‘dead’ to everyone. Even within the colony, people look down on the women who work at the brothel.

As Nandu frequently visits Pushpa, who has taken him under her wing, his mother yells at him and forbids him from doing so. At one point, she even throws away the samosas Pushpa gave Nandu because ‘uski ghar ki cheezein nahi khaate’. Mind you, this is the same woman who takes a very laissez-faire approach to feeding Nandu.

'Amar Prem' is all about its plot, music, and Pushpa (I hate tears).

Nandu when his stepmom doesn't feed him but also throws away his samosas.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

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The one thing that bothers me about the portrayal of sex workers in Amar Prem, is the way Pushpa is shown as ‘having a heart of gold’ and is thus seemingly too good for the place. At one point Anand compares her to a ‘banjar zameen mai phool’.

Anand, who is easily the most likeable man in the film, also draws a comparison between a wife versus a mistress as ‘sherbat vs desi sharaab’. Considering that the film is from the 70s, the subtle misogyny isn’t surprising.

However, it’s not all bad. Amar Prem portrays a camaraderie between all the women who work with Pushpa under the watchful and protective gaze of Mausi (Leela Mishra). It is clear that both Anand and Mausi respect the women and stand by them to ensure their safety.

Of Relationships and Amar Prem…

Amar Prem for me is not a romance because Anand and Pushpa’s story takes a backseat to the relationship between Pushpa and Nandu. Here is the film’s biggest win - the relationships all revolve around Pushpa.

As Nandu finds the ol’ Bollywood ‘mamta’ with Pushpa, their bond only grows deeper with time evidenced by the things they do for for each other - Nandu challenges his stepmother and Pushpa sneakily saves his life.

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When Nandu grows up (played by Vinod Mehra) and comes back to Kolkata, he embarks on a search for Pushpa. When he does find her, it’s clear that they both held on to their relationship - that of a mother and child. Is it healthy? Probably not but the film has so little joy that it’s okay.

Where does it get a little sketchy? With Pushpa and Anand. When Pushpa asks him why he comes to visit her, his answer will probably remind you of a Tinder match you regret - essentially says he has nowhere else to go. Issue? She just shrugs it off! I get it, she has a heart of gold but you have to draw the line somewhere.

She NEVER complains; even when she finds out that Nepal Babu conveniently forgot to tell her that her mother is dead (this is where the iconic “Pushpa, I hate tears” comes in. She just found out her mom is dead, let her cry for like….5 mins?)

'Amar Prem' is all about its plot, music, and Pushpa (I hate tears).

Let Pushpa cry agenda.

Pushpa’s character deserved more substance. Shyam Benegal’s Mandi comes to mind where a stellar cast plays sex workers (led by Shabana Azmi) at a brothel who fight society’s ideals and the system.

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I digress. Anand tells Pushpa that her relationship with Nandu is a farce (which….valid) but he has also projected his expectations on her. Anand has marital problems - his wife is rarely home and it’s insinuated that she is unfaithful. When his friend asks him why he meets Pushpa, he goes on a spiel about how a ‘man works all day, comes back home and when he doesn’t find what he needs he goes elsewhere’…you get the drift. Feminism isn’t winning here.

One could argue that his wife also has some complaints from him but we don’t get her side. She is only the ‘evil woman’ who goes to parties and salons. Anand not only visits Pushpa every day, he also asks her to cook a dish his friend talked about- his wife, who doesn’t go to salons, makes it for him, and Pushpa makes it for Anand.

'Amar Prem' is all about its plot, music, and Pushpa (I hate tears).

They're both not scoring points on the spouse meter honestly.

What Makes ‘Amar Prem’ a Classic?

Sharmila Tagore as Pushpa makes this film her own. When she is playing the damsel in distress, your heart goes out for her, when she is pampering Nandu, it’s heartwarming and a coy Pushpa who Anand sees is so masterfully done that the film’s title makes sense. Supplementing her is a dashing Rajesh Khanna who is as smooth as they come, I mean he brings her food every day!

'Amar Prem' is all about its plot, music, and Pushpa (I hate tears).

Rajesh Khanna's Anand, Sharmila Tagore's Pushpa, and Nandu are adorable together!

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

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But my favourite? The music. The songs in Amar Prem are timeless classics (my favourites: ‘Raina Beeti Jaye...’ and ‘Chingari Koi Bhadke...’), not only for their composition but their lyrics and picturisation. There's a place for every song and every song has its place.

For the 70s, the film is set primarily in a brothel and challenges society’s view of sex workers. Showing the story from Pushpa’s eyes gives the audience empathy even though she really, REALLY deserved to exist outside her relationships.

Amar Prem is an example of great pacing. When I saw the film was longer than 2 hours I was skeptical but I was glued to the screen taking in every subplot. I was glad that it didn’t work out as the perfect romance and was more focused on love and relationships in every form.

But it's 2022, Some Stuff is Not Okay

The ‘pure woman’ trope is regurgitated time and again to the point where Pushpa is compared to the river Ganga - the similarity being that they both wash the sins of others. That is a lot to put on a woman, honestly. Pushpa is nice to a fault and contrasted against Anand’s wife, it leans heavily on the Madonna-whore complex which is pretty much a staple of Bollywood and Indian TV.

'Amar Prem' is all about its plot, music, and Pushpa (I hate tears).

And I, personally, wouldn't take just Anand's word for it.

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Pushpa even breaks her bangles when her first husband who, to refresh your memory, married someone else because Pushpa couldn’t bear a child, and then threw her out, dies.

There are a few ‘brahman ka beta’ comments thrown around which didn’t really seem essential to the plot at all. And the characters of Natwarlal and Khan sahib are comically exaggerated even though the former deserves props for eating pani puri with alcohol, a culinary pioneer.

Amar Prem is by no means a bad film; it might even be one of the best films of the time. It tackled issues not a lot of people were talking about well and gave Indian cinema iconic dialogues and songs. Watch it for Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna’s magical presence on screen and especially for, “Pushpa, I hate tears.”

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