Reverence for Victims
Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana, faithful to the tradition of the maternal melodrama, is a narrative of excess: a woman’s acute suffering, her sacrifices, and— a favourite theme in Hindi cinema—her intense love for her son. The film begins with passionate arguments in court, where the female protagonist, Vandana (Sharmila Tagore), is on trial. As the credits end, we hear the prosecutor’s concluding statements. “Your honour,” he says,
in the eyes of the law, there is nothing more grave than the murder of a human being. And when the one who gives birth to human beings, a woman, murders a man, the crime becomes even more heinous. I therefore plead with the court that the defendant not be spared because she is a woman. She should be punished severely so that people learn from this precedent and justice is served.4
As Vandana, dressed widow-like in austere white clothes, is incarcerated, the camera tilts up to the barred window, and in a protracted flashback, the die – gesis unfolds.
Vandana returns from college to live with her widower father and falls in love with air force pilot Arun (Rajesh Khanna), who dies just before they are to marry. Vandana discovers she is pregnant, suffers rejection from Arun’s family, endures her father’s death, and after further misadventures gives up her son to a childless couple, Ram Prasad and Anita. She gains employment as the boy’s governess, but her happy years as a surrogate mother end abruptly when Anita’s brother visits. He propositions Vandana but is killed accidentally in a scuffle with her and her son, Suraj, who intervenes to help her. To protect Suraj, Vandana assumes full responsibility for the death, and only after twelve years of incarceration is she released from prison. Several coincidences later she meets the adult Suraj (played again by Rajesh Khanna) now an airforce pilot. A war breaks out and Suraj is wounded in action, but during his convalescence, in the final denouement, he discovers Vandana’s identity. To everyone’s surprise within the narrative, in the last scene he introduces Vandana as his mother and declares her the co-recipient of his gallantry award.
In keeping with the demands of evolving genres there is something new in the film, despite the repetition. As a portrait of a suffering woman, it derives from the Indo-Anglian literary tradition developed in the shadow of eighteenth – and nineteenth-century Orientalist canons and Victorian norms (Tharu 1989). Sexual restraint, the control of libidinal energy, is intrinsic to this representation. While popular films absorbed principles of female chastity, Aradhana broaches heterosexual love as having a palpable sexual compulsion and explicitly associates romantic love with sexual desire. Yet, harking back to chastity principles, it also shows the ruinous consequences of extrainstitutional sex for women.
There has long been a puzzling taboo on explicit sex scenes in Hindi cinema, with song-and-dance sequences standing in for them. The introduction of Eastman colour in the early 1960s led to abandoning the studios in favour of outdoor locations, especially for romantic sequences and their critical incumbent “song picturization,” as it is known in the film industry.5 Heroines stretch languorously across the landscape as though innocent of the camera’s gaze and their own sexualized bodies. Aradhana’s opening follows this new trend in depicting the wonders of “falling in love.” Yet it somewhat daringly disrupts the sexual sublimation by negotiating heterosexual love outside social and familial sanction (i. e., marriage) in the course of the couple’s courtship. Caught one day in an unexpected downpour, Vandana and Arun take shelter in a motel and, in an unusual moment for Hindi cinema, succumb to their sexual desire. The sequence is memorable for its elegance, skillfully addressing the censor board’s and Hindi cinema’s own curious prudery on matters of sexual intimacy.
Yet the entire film exhibits the “cunning” of the maternal melodrama that operates on two levels—both condemning women’s victimization and punishing her for a reckless moment of sexual passion, the “sin” for which men go scot-free (Viviani 1991,178). Bereft of a man’s protection when her lover dies, she distances herself from her son to avoid the ignominy of unwed motherhood, hands over her rights and recognition as a biological mother,6 and, worst of all, becomes easy prey to strange men. Though Vandana wards off an imminent rape, its upshot—the death of her rapist—drives the narrative forward. Through this and her voluntary incarceration to protect her son, her severance from him is complete. Typical of the genre of melodrama there is
a constant struggle for gratification and equally constant blockages to its attainment. [The] narratives are driven by one crisis after another, crises involving severed family ties, separation, and loss… .Seduction, betrayal, abandonment, extortion, murder, suicide, revenge, jealousy.. .are.. .the familiar terrain of melodrama. The victims are most often females threatened in their sexuality, their property, their very identity. (Landy 1991,14)
Despite the film’s powerful rendition, it betrays a disconcertingly conservative strain. At the end of the film, instead of the “cathartic trial scene” that rehabilitates the mother, we get an exaltation by the state as the son shares his success with his mother, or at least deflects his glory onto her. In this, Arad – hana resonates with several other films, from Mother India in 1957 to Deewar/Wall in 1975. These films share the theme of a suffering mother finally apotheosized by the state.7 This veneration reinforces suffering as a value in itself, monumentalizing it, rather than resisting patriarchal norms. The suffering woman is held up as a model of womanhood, idealized, honoured, and decorated. In a fantastic and wholly fabricated gesture, the films have the son/state recognize the mother’s martyrdom, making her suffering “worth it all.” I see this move as particular to Hindi cinema and distinct from the 1930s Hollywood versions of such narratives, which show women’s miraculous rise to power, fame, success, and money, returning them on an equal footing to the society that once rejected them. In turn, the 1930s Hollywood films reverse the European maternal melodramas in which the outcast mother sinks into anonymity and oblivion (Viviani 1991,173).
Aradhana spawned several films on the same theme in the 1970s, becoming a virtual woman-victim subgenre—Kati Patang/FallingKite (1972), Amar
Prem/Eternal Love (1973), and Julie (1975) are among the most popular. The narratives recuperate all kinds of “fallen women,” deifying them and their suffering, and setting them up as objects of reverence. While the representation of women as abject but idolized victims (Aradhana-style) became the dominant mode for such women’s films, a decade later, with the arrival of the avenging heroine, another subgenre replaced them.