There is a subgenre of Hindi movies in which horrible things happen to blameless, flawless women. Canonical among these is the classic Amar prem, in which Sharmila Tagore plays a saintly prostitute with an apparently limitless capacity to endure pain, and Rajesh Khanna plays her philosophizing patron. Aradhana ("worship") features the same stars and explores similar thematic space - a woman endures terrible misfortune, yet maintains grace and dignity throughout. Her reward for all this forbearance is the ultimate prize for women in this sort of movie: recognition of her status as a mother.
Aradhana's first hour is an appealing, uncomplicated romance in a picturesque mountain town. A dashing air force officer, Arun (Rajesh Khanna), falls in love with Vandana (Sharmila Tagore), the charming daughter of a doctor. Not a lot of substance happens, but the courtship is a pleasure to watch, packed with lovely songs and glorious scenery. And I mean glorious scenery even apart from Sharmila Tagore herself, who certainly is good enough to eat, whether being coyly charmed by Arun as he serenades her on a train in "Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu,"
or dancing playfully in the snow in "Gun guna rahe hain bhanware."
After a whirlwind courtship of just a few days, Arun and Vandana are caught in a rainstorm, and allow their passion to get the better of them in one of the hottest sequences I have ever seen in any movie, Hindi or otherwise - the superb song "Roop Tera mastana." Go ahead and watch this one. Really. I'll wait. If you've not seen it before, you need to, and if you have, isn't it time you watched it again?
This gorgeously erotic single-cut sequence conveys tremendous desire and intensity. The dim firelight, the fine sheen on the actors' skin, the slow deliberation of their movements, their locked gazes - all these elements combine for a sensuous, thrilling several minutes of cinema. I've said before, I am not a great fan of Rajesh Khanna, but even I have to admit that he's downright spicy here. Even throughout the rest of the movie he's not that bad - he occasionally flirts with the kind of droopy-lidded, mumbly frogginess that I dislike about him - but in this song he simply fires on all cylinders. The song isn't lip-synced - Arun doesn't sing it to Vandana, it's just playing as the backdrop for their desire - and this enhances the intensity and realism of the sequence. It's just phenomenal.
It is also very nearly the last happy moment of Aradhana. Arun is killed in action before he and Vandana can be married, but she is carrying his child. The boy is adopted by a sympathetic man, Saxena (Abhi Bhattacharya), who allows Vandana to serve as the boy's nurse and governess, so that she can stay close to him and help fulfill Arun's dream that the boy grow up to become a fighter pilot. Soon, Saxena's lecherous brother-in-law tries to have his way with Vandana, and is killed in the resulting scuffle with Vandana and the child Suraj. Vandana takes responsibility for the death, and is thrown in prison for a dozen years. Now she has no way to watch over Suraj, and no hope that Suraj will ever know that she is his mother.
Vandana's suffering is tempered by the extraordinary kindness shown to her by two men. The first is Saxena, who allows her to stay close to her child and care for him. Saxena continues to believe in Vandana after her conviction for murder, saying that he can see in her eyes the purity of her soul and her intentions. Then, on her release from prison, her jailer (Madan Puri) extends another remarkable kindness, inviting Vandana to join his household, as his "sister", to help look after his daughter Renu (Farida Jalal). Like Saxena, the jailer perceives and is moved by Vandana's purity and dignity, despite the poor hand she's been dealt. These phenomenal kindnesses temper the harsh cruelties that Vandana endures. The universe is not blind to Vandana's goodness, and this fact balances Aradhana's tragic elements and makes the message bearably somber, rather than unbearably sad. Even though life may take dreadful turns, if you endure them with a pure heart, the karmic balance is restored over the course of a lifetime.
The tone of Aradhana shifts between realism and melodrama, sometimes abruptly, but the changes are not distracting. Rather, they make the movie operate on two levels. In its more delicate, realistic moments, Aradhana is a sad story about a very likeable woman and the losses she endures over her liftime. The movie also invokes some of the usual improbable filmi tropes, the most notable of which is that Renu's beau is Vandana's lost son, Suraj, now grown into a dashing fighter pilot who is the spitting image of his father (and is of course also played by Rajesh Khanna). When it becomes more filmi, Aradhana evokes its grander themes of balance, purity, and the dignity of motherhood. And it works splendidly on both levels, not least because Sharmila Tagore is a skilled actor who shifts effectively between these two storytelling modes.
Just as the mean realities of Vandana's life are tempered by the kindnesses and redemption she experiences, so the tragic second half of the movie is balanced by the frothy, adorable charms of its first half. Although there is a part of my brain that feels I should not be thoroughly charmed by a movie in which a woman's only joy and ambition is to be recognized as a mother and fulfill her dead husband's egotistical dream of molding his male child in his own image, I just can't get too worked up about that. After all, it's just one story about one woman, and given everything that she endures, it's not a terrible thing for her to have a relatively simple and sacrificing approach to happiness. And besides - Sharmila Tagore!
As if the pleasure of Sharmila Tagore weren't enough, there's a charming appearance by Filmi Geek favorite Ashok Kumar as Arun's commanding officer, who seems mostly to drink scotch, play billiards, and dispense avuncular advice. This role is delightful, very similar to his hilarious role in Chhoti si baat.
The result is a very satisfying movie with lots to sink one's teeth into, the perfect blend of romance, tragedy, levity, and sexiness, all packaging a thoughtful message and showcasing a whole lot of pretty.