Mothers, don't let your sons grow up to join the Indian Air Force. At least on the evidence of our Bollywood viewing, characters in the Air Force may as well wear a sign saying "I'm doomed." We've seen Air Force pilots:
- Get killed when their defective planes crash (Flight Lt. Ajay Rathod (Madhavan) in Rang de Basanti (Paint it Saffron, 2006))
- Get imprisoned for decades by a certain hostile neighboring country (Squadron Leader Veer Pratap Singh (Shah Rukh Khan) in Veer-Zaara (2004))
- Get shot down during a border conflict with a certain hostile neighboring country (Squadron Leader Shekhar Malhotra (Shashi Kapoor) in Silsila (Connections, 1981))
(You may recognize this song as one of the many to which Shah Rukh Khan pays homage in "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" from 2009's Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made in Heaven).)
Vandana is swept off her feet by Arun—who could resist?—and a few days later as they are visiting a temple they exchange wedding garlands in the presence of a priest. Caught in a sudden thunderstorm, Arun and Vandana take shelter, and of course Vandana has to remove her wet sari and warm herself by the fire. Although she modestly covers herself with a blanket, the temptation proves too much for both of them, as the thunderstorm raging outside echoes their own overwhelming passions ("Roop Tera Mastana" ("Your beauty is intoxicating")):
Afterwards, Arun assures the guilt-stricken Vandana that they will be married in the eyes of their families as well as in the eyes of God in just a few days; first, though, he just has to make a short flight to bring his uncle and aunt to meet Vandana...
I don't think it will be much of a spoiler if I reveal that, sure enough, Arun's plane crashes and he is fatally injured. On his deathbed, he exacts a promise from the pregnant Vandana that their son will grow up to be an Air Force pilot. That seems reasonable: what parents wouldn't want their son to take up the same profession that killed his dad?
Of course, Arun's death is only the first of a series of tragedies that strike Vandana; mild spoilers follow. Her father dies, leaving her impoverished, and Arun's family rejects her and her story about their secret marriage. She agrees to anonymously give her son Suraj up for adoption, but return to adopt him herself the next day. But her plan goes horribly wrong when another couple, the wealthy but childless Saxenas (Anita Dutt and Abhi Bhattacharya), adopts him first. Vandana then takes a job as a servant in the Saxena household so that she can be close to Suraj as he grows up, even though she can never let him know that she is really his mother.
As if this giant helping of Maternal Self-Sacrifice isn't enough, her employers' sleazy relative Shyam (Manmohan) tries to rape Vandana. The assault is only averted when Suraj comes to his beloved "nanny"'s rescue with a sharp pair of scissors. To protect him, Vandana takes the blame, even though she realizes that it means prison and a lengthy—perhaps permanent—separation from her son.
In the intervening years Suraj (Rajesh Khanna in a double role) becomes a young man, joins the Air Force (gulp) and, like his dad, woos a local beauty with a flirtatious song, "Baghon Mein Bahar Hai" ("Has Spring come to my garden?")
Will Suraj find happiness with the lovely Renu (Farida Jalal)? Will Vandana and Suraj ever be reunited? Will he ever learn that Vandana is his mother? And most importantly, can Suraj somehow avoid the Curse of the Air Force?
Even if you can guess the answers to most of these questions, Aradhana is very much worth seeing for Sharmila Tagore's whole-hearted performance as the devoted Vandana (I'm already seeing Vidya Balan playing the lead in The Sharmila Tagore Story), for the obvious chemistry between Sharmila and the far too handsome Rajesh Khanna (this was the role that made him a superstar), and for the classic S.D. Burman/Anand Bakshi songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar, Mohd. Rafi, and S.D. Burman himself.
For additional thoughts about Aradhana, please see the reviews by Filmi Geek and Philip Lutgendorf.
Thanks to RajShri Films, you can watch Aradhana with English captions on YouTube for free.
Update 21 March 2013: Memsaab has written two wonderful appreciations of Rajesh Khanna, My ten favorite Rajesh Khanna songs and The complicated superstar.