It would not be an overstatement to say that if Hindi cinema, with its over 100 years of history, ever made a showreel for itself, the visual of Rajesh Khanna singing ‘Mere Sapno Ki Raani’ as Sharmila Tagore peeks out of a train’s window, would definitely make the cut. The Sharmila Tagore–Rajesh Khanna starrer 1969 film Aradhana was one of the most iconic films of the era. It started the 15-film hit streak of Rajesh Khanna, Kishore Kumar became the voice of Hindi cinema’s hero after a long reign of Mohd Rafi, and director Shakti Samanta delivered a hit unlike any he had given before. And with all of this surround sound, Sharmila Tagore, who looked lovely with her bouffant, played the woman who faces all obstacles in life and ultimately emerges as the winner. In not so many words, she was the damsel in distress who needed saving at every juncture of her life, but somehow was shown as the picture of strength.
For the unversed, here’s what Aradhana is all about. Vandana (Tagore) and Arun (Khanna) fall in love, make love, he dies, and she gets pregnant. The film is from the 1960s so, of course, the couple made love only after they got ‘married’ in a temple. After delivering her dead boyfriend’s baby, Vandana does something so asinine that it’s impossible for a viewer to relate to it. While keeping an illegitimate baby in the 1960s might not have been a ‘samaaj-friendly’ act, her decision to give the baby to an orphanage with a plan to adopt him the next day. It goes haywire; he ends up in another home, with Vandana as the nanny.
Mainstream Hindi films require a certain degree of suspension of disbelief but Aradhana stretches it to a point where you are left bemused. As Sharmila’s Vandana enters the orphanage and says she wants to adopt a baby, they ask her why, to which she says ‘I have no one and I’m bored at home’. Guess what, it actually works. They then take her to a room full of babies where she can basically shop for a child. This entire sequence is so juvenile that you wonder if the filmmaker thought of the audience as dim-witted or was the audience simply happy to accept any plot between some great songs.
Vandana is surrounded by men who support her. She lives with her father when she meets Arun. After Arun’s death, she becomes the nanny of her own baby because another man insists that she doesn’t have a choice. It’s made so clear to her that ‘samaaj tumhe jeene nahi dega’ and she accepts it, no questions asked. Soon, another man tries to rape her, and somehow dies in a scuffle, she ends up in jail and from there, she ends up at the ex-jailor’s house. It is the late 1960s and it is not like women did nothing for a living at the time, but Vandana does absolutely nothing. We never hear of her having an education or a job, and the only time she is reminded of her agency is when she has to make a sacrifice.
It is rather strange to watch Aradhana in 2022 and realise that the meaning of a woman’s strength is simply equated to her ability to sacrifice for others. The film’s title Aradhana, which means prayer, comes from the resolve that Vandana takes after Arun’s death. She pledges to make her son an Air Force officer, and while she has no role in getting that aim fulfilled, we are told that her Aradhana is finally complete as the movie ends.
Vandana does not actively make any choices in her life, and her passivity is presented as life dealing her with a few rough cards. She is celebrated as the picture of sainthood and motherhood by the end of the film, when in fact, we see her only being a ‘dukhiya, bechari’ woman throughout the film.
Aradhana holds up because of its excellent music by SD Burman and the arresting visual aesthetic. Shakti Samanta’s one-take of ‘Roop Tera Mastana’ with no lip-sync was definitely a very forward move for its era, and its stretches like those that have an instant recall value and not the measly protagonist who seems like a complete pushover. Aradhana is a great music album with some great music videos, but the film independently doesn’t really live up to the hype.