Mehboob Khan’s Amar didn’t do well at the box office when it was released in 1954. That’s hardly surprising: it had a morally depraved hero who does something unthinkable and very un-herolike.
Amarnath (Dilip Kumar) is a reputed lawyer who is engaged to Anju Devi (Madhubala). Amar’s passion for justice is the strongest, we are told – you cannot imagine Amar doing anything unlawful. And yet, one stormy night, Amar rapes Soniya (Nimmi), who breaks into his house in order to seek refuge from the village goon Sankar.
The shock of Amar’s criminal actions barely has any time to sink in. As Soniya slips away, gripped by shame and anguish, Anju arrives with the news of the death of Amar’s father. Amar’s horrifying act becomes his personal, miserable secret. Soniya too hides the assdone to her. The once confident lawyer begins to reveal his weak moral core as he struggles to take ownership for the deed he has committed.
Dilip Kumar had barely clocked a decade in the Hindi film industry. He plays with remarkable ease the brooding, guilt-laden soul that Amar gradually becomes. Amar transforms from an assertive and cheerful lawyer into a quiet, languishing man. While he maintains a stoic exterior, the eyes convey a sense of fearfulness and the current of agonising thoughts that seek repentance.
The agony is conveyed through intense close-ups, and is most evident in the way Kumar speaks his lines. His face remains composed, but his voice, intonation and speech alone carry a range of emotions. In the company of two strong characters essayed by equally robust performers – Madhubala and Nimmi – Kumar stands his ground,
Amar was an unlikely choice for Kumar, especially in 1954, by which time he had achieved stardom. Before Amar, he had been portrayed a bunch of tragic characters in such films as Mela (1948), Andaz (1949) and Deedar (1951). But Kumar was clearly unafraid of taking up unconventional roles. In his autobiography Dilip Kumar, The Substance and The Shadow, An Autobiography, he writes about how a flawed hero can be appealing. He was more successful in exploring this type in his later hit Gunga Jumna (1961).
“Gunga Jumna’s enduring achievement is the inspiration it provided to writers to give the hero a flaw or what you call a negative shade,” Kumar writes in his autobiography. “I had done ‘anti-hero’ roles earlier too. For instance, the character I had played in Mehboob Khan’s Amar (1954) did commit an outrage... The character I played in Zia Sarhadi’s Footpath (1953) was a black marketeer and so he was also a tarnished hero. However, those films were not as successful as Gunga Jumna. In the case of Gunga Jumna, the hero was on the wrong side of the law but he had the audience sympathy with him...”
Amar did not have the audience on his side, but the actor playing him definitely did.