One of the recurring archetypes of Hindi film is that of the saintly courtesan, forced by circumstance into a degrading way of life, yet capable of pure and unconditional love. She stands for downtrodden, misunderstood womanhood, for inner purity that shines through the most miserable debasement. She might stand for Mother India debased by colonial rape. She is almost certainly an overdetermined symbol, with meanings that resonate far more deeply than the recent memories of the British Raj and Independence, meanings rooted in the ancient mythologies of India. Amar prem ("Undying love") draws on this archetype, and while I enjoyed the film, I can't help thinking I would have appreciated it much more if I knew enough to fully unpack the metaphor.
Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) is thrown violently out of her husband's home after he tires of her apparent infertility and brings home a shrewish second wife. Pushpa returns to her home village to a lukewarm reception; even her own mother is predisposed to believe that her exile is due to some bad conduct of Pushpa's own, and she is treated as a fallen woman: shunned, disrespected, and molested. Desperation leads her to a brothel in Calcutta, where she quickly earns the regular patronage of a wealthy, married businessman named Anand (Rajesh Khanna). Meanwhile a family from Pushpa's village moves in across the street, including a little boy named Nandu who is shunned and mistreated by his stepmother. Pushpa takes to Nandu, treating him to sweets and samosas when his stepmother is too busy or too angry to feed him.
The remainder of the film chronicles the reverberations of Pushpa's kindness on Anand, Nandu, Nandu's father, and others, throughout their lives. Pushpa's saintliness is truly boundless. She cares for Anand, whose cryptic pronouncements make him something of a sphinx - a squinting, drunken, pontificating sphinx. Late in the film Pushpa is thrown back into contact with the husband whose cruelty started her on the path to degradation and suffering, and she takes the magnanimous road in that circumstance as well. Indeed, I would have found Pushpa a more interesting character had she shown any weakness at all, rather than a limitless capacity for both enduring pain and dishing out love. It is this unreality of Pushpa that leads me again to the conclusion that she is pure allegory, pure symbol, and it is only because of my own ignorance of her antecedents that I do not fully appreciate her. In the end of the film a direct identity is established between Pushpa and the goddess Durga; I do not know enough of the mythology of Durga to understand what this identity is telling me about Pushpa, about suffering, and about motherly love.
In short, Amar Prem, with its themes of mother-worship and woman's limitless capacity to endure suffering, is so very Indian as to be almost inaccessible to me, as a relatively ignorant outsider after less than two years of exposure to Indian films. This is not an indictment of the film, however - rather, it incites my curiosity, because if very Indian themes had no resonance with me at all I would not have spent the better part of the last two years watching them and writing about them. And so I invite all of you who can to offer any insight on what a film like Amar Prem has to say to an audience that understands the metaphoric language in which it speaks.
The one thing that I could unequivocally appreciate about Amar Prem - other than the loveliness of Sharmila Tagore - was its beautiful soundtrack by the incomparable R.D. Burman. Unlike other Burman soundtracks of the era, with their funky fusion sounds, there are no rockout tunes in Amar Prem - just one sensuous, haunting melody after another, with a thoroughly Indian yet fresh and contemporary sound. The songs lack the flashiness of Burman's other popular endeavors, but the soundtrack is nevertheless one of his finest, a slow burn that works its way gradually into one's heart. I could only find two examples, via YouTube: "Chingare koi bhadke", and "Yeh kya hua," neither of which is my favorite, but they are lovely nevertheless.