'Amar Prem': A neglected gem

Like so many unrepentant South Indian chauvinists, I grew up memorising old Hindi movie songs and paying no attention to the movies themselves. And so I wasn’t affected by Rajesh Khanna’s passing away (I didn’t even know he had been affectionately called Kaka) in the way that many Hindi movie fans were. And strangely, my minor encounter with his movies (and the songs from those movies) and an (overnight) appreciation for them came through the eyes and ears and soul of Joel Flegler, the publisher and editor of Fanfare which is perhaps, along with Gramophone, the most respected and admired music journal for the serious music collector. 

One day, out of the blue in 2005, I received an email from Mr Flegler asking if I would like to review CDs of Indian movie music for his journal, Fanfare. I looked up the magazine and discovered its solid pedigree in the world of Western classical music. He thought it would be good to include an Indian voice, someone who had a native feeling for these movies and songs.

Joel Flegler had recently stumbled on Hindi movie music and thought so highly of it, that he wanted to include reviews of old and new titles in Fanfare — it would be a section at the back of the journal. He had even persuaded Fanfare’s eminent American reviewers to watch these movies, pay close attention to the songs, and write about them. I was a little amused and taken aback by all this: I had only a nostalgic liking for them, having all through school heard these vintage tunes from radios and transistors and public functions. And the occasional hit movie which we saw as a gang with favourite cousins or with classmates on a Saturday afternoon. The first CD and DVD Flegler sent me was an S D Burman-R D Burman trilogy: Aradhana, Kati Patang and Amar Prem. Flegler added that he thought Rajesh Khanna the most charismatic Indian star and one of the most moving actors he had ever seen. (Flegler was also a huge film aficionado — this is how he had stumbled on Indian movie music).

“I am currently watching Mere Jeevan Saathi,” Joel wrote, “the 1972 Rajesh Khanna starrer. It took me a year-and-a-half, but I now think that Khanna is the most winning leading man in the history of Indian movies and I’m trying to get everything he did as a young actor. The movie itself is a soap opera, but R D Burman’s songs are among the best I’ve heard from him and Khanna is incredible. The star power that he exudes is unique, and I’m overwhelmed by the combination of the music and his persona.” 

My own memory of Khanna (and several Indian stars) had been marred and mocked by my own growing fascination with American method actors. Finally, when I got around to seeing the movies (and listening to the CD several times) I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed them, delighting especially in Rajesh Khanna.

This was all very condescending of me at that time, but over time I came to have a true and full appreciation and knowledge of Indian cinema. (I pointed Flegler in the direction of South Indian music and movies, and he grew to be a great fan of Illaiyaraaja, quickly owning everything by the composer. He badly wanted to interview and profile the Mozart of Madras on the cover of Fanfare, but repeated emails to Raja’s office went unanswered. I owe Flegler a debt of gratitude for turning me back to these vintage movies and songs when I thought I had bid goodbye to them).

My interest in the films of Rajesh Khanna would not have gone any further than a liking for the star if not for one single film in that Burman trilogy: Amar Prem. It seems to me one of the most underrated (and less known and overlooked) Hindi movies from that period. Made in 1971, and starring Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna, Amar Prem skirts the usual conventions of romance and family melodrama to portray the sorrow and happiness of three strangers — a man, a woman and a child — who unexpectedly find each other and love. 

For me it is a profound little beauty that never fails, each time I hear the songs or see the movie, to set off in me a feeling of happiness, sadness and acceptance. There is a wryly philosophical, spiritual quality to it — the songs, the lyrics, the characters, the themes — that makes it a one of a kind Indian movie.

It is based on a story by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (which had already been made into the Bengali movie, Nishipadma, a year before) and surely that must have something to do with the un-Bollywood feel the movie has throughout. First of all it is set in Calcutta, and many of the locals walking the studio streets look and sound Bengali. The character of Khanna himself must have been a Bengali babu in the original story. 

Quite unexpectedly, but enchantingly, Amar Prem has one of the funniest moments/comedy scenes in Indian cinema that I can think of: it has to do with another tipsy Bengali babu handing his quarter bottle to the pani puri seller and asking him to fill the puri with booze instead of pani. And in this way he polishes off every drop in the bottle, emptying the basket of puris. 

The songs by Anand Bakshi and R D Burman (sung by Kishore Kumar and Lata Mageshkar) have a kind of melancholy joy combined with spiritual yearning.The first three songs, Kuch Toh Log Kahenge (People will always talk), Chingari koi bhadke (If sparks flare up) and Yeh Kya Hua (What has happened here) sung by Kishore Kumar glow with a bittersweet sadness. Raina Beeti Jaye (The night is passing) by Lata Mangeshkar has the quality of a Meera bhajan, with its Krishna-Radha motif. Radha yearns for Krishna but though it is already sham (evening), he has not come. Together, these four songs from Amar Prem are some of the most richly melodious, haunting Indian songs ever composed. And the film itself is a small, neglected gem.

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