Aaradhana (1987)


Film romances are often full of stupid people doing stupid things, trying my patience to the point that I hope one or all of them will hurry up and die so the movie can end. Thankfully this is not the case with Aaradhana which I found intelligent and lyrical. It is hard to avoid spoilers, although I have tried, so be warned…

The basic story is simple enough. Puliraju (Chiranjeevi) is a no-good drunk who falls for Jenny, (Suhasini) a Christian schoolteacher. Jenny’s family rely on her for financial support and her father Danial plans for her to marry wealthy cousin Lawrance (Dr Rajasekhar). Gangamma (Radhika) believes she has been engaged to Raju since childhood and is determined to marry him.

It could have been a farce but for excellent writing and beautiful performances, ably steered by writer-director Bharathi Raja and dialogue writer Jandhyala. There are consequences to every choice and these characters know what they want, see the obstacles and understand what the results will be, both for themselves and for others. This thoughtful writing adds a note of tragedy to balance the sweetness of the love story. The cast are uniformly good and make the most of the material, with Chiranjeevi, Suhasini and Radhika outstanding. I am a Chiru fan, but I really was seeing Raju on screen most of the time, not the Megastar. I will add, there is not a shred of lycra nor a metallic go-go boot in sight – his performance succeeds purely on acting ability. And those eyes.

The film opens with a slow pan around a seaside village before Puliraju chases a man through the market and lops his arm off as punishment for teasing a girl. He is a destructive force of misguided and alcohol-fuelled energy; childishly impulsive and self centred, full of aggression yet backs away from emotional confrontations. His name is a sign of the character’s dual nature – is he a beast or a prince? His mother and the villagers see only his worst side.

Jenny is worlds away from the likes of Raju. After a confrontation where she slaps him and he backs down, Jenny talks to Raju’s mother and reassures her that he has a good heart under the crude exterior.

Raju overhears this and is touched by Jenny’s faith in him which, along with his attraction to her, compels him to try to become a better man. Jenny isn’t afraid of Raju, and her values demand that she tries to see the best in him. She acquiesces to his plea for lessons and over the time spent together, an attraction and warmth develops. His childish streak is allowed to manifest as a sense of fun and silly stunts to impress Teacher Jenny, and his fearsome reputation diminishes.

I found it unusual to see a hero make himself so vulnerable to a woman, and to be in the position of mutely hoping she picks him. Raju knows he isn’t the right man for Jenny in so many ways, but he loves her and feels helpless. He changes his hairstyle (with varying degrees of success but a ruler straight side part always seems to indicate Good Boy), learns to read, swaps his colourful lungis for pants and generally cuts back on his drinking and hell-raising.

More significant, he learns about empathy and demonstrates his affectionate side. He hits a few bumps in the road, but he never fully relapses into the aggressive brute Puliraju. This change is more than superficial grooming to appeal to Jenny, and later scenes with Gangamma show the extent of his self-awareness. Chiranjeevi subtly alters his posture, facial expressions and diction to show the changes in Raju.

Gangamma is Raju’s cousin and fiancée since childhood. Raju initially rejects her just because he doesn’t want a wife, and later Jenny is the unwitting obstacle between them.

Gangamma tries to see off her rival but once she realises Raju will never return her love, she reassesses. Rather than force the marriage, she colludes with him to avoid the unwanted wedding. She would rather nothing than a one-sided marriage to him and asks for a place in his household, but not as his wife. Radhika was stunning. Gangamma was a cheeky and sly girl to start with and her expressions transformed completely by the end of the film to a saddened but spirited woman

Lawrance is nice, wealthy, likes Jenny and is ready to marry. Lawrance and Raju are often shot in mirror poses or facing opposite directions and as heavy handed as it may sound, it does add to the tension as Lawrance seems to have no idea he has a rival for Jenny’s love.

Religion doesn’t appear to be a strong division in this fishing village which possesses an unusually large church. Religious imagery abounds through the film and serves to illuminate the character’s qualities rather than promote any one practice or belief. When Raju gives his teacher a seashell, he proudly announces it is special, the same shell Lord Shiva touched. He calls Jenny a goddess; not just out of love but because he sees her as beautiful, educated and an inspiration.

The Christian iconography in Jenny’s home resonates with Raju and her explanations seem aimed straight at his heart. I wondered whether the poor lost goat was really necessary in so many scenes, but seeing Chiru in tears on the railway platform with that goat, I melted too.

Lawrance’s aunt (Anuradha Vasudev)  is the catalyst for some most interesting conversations. She challenges Jenny to make a decision about following her sense of duty or her heart and she is frank and explicit on this subject. This is not a film where women are completely passive. Jenny is expected to make a decision, tell the men what she has chosen, and live her life accordingly in full knowledge of the consequences.

Everyone seems to know what is going on (except maybe Lawrance) and there is no protective bubble of invisibility around the lovers. Jenny is assaulted by a villager who assumes he can have her as she spends so much time with Raju that she surely can’t be virtuous. I found that scene fascinating as it wasn’t a drunken leery groping type of assault but a calculated move by a man who thought he had the situation and the woman under control. It was very well written and felt horribly real. Gangamma also has to bear the brunt of village gossip as unsuccessful Romeos turn to slander and threats. They all know Raju isn’t the tough Puli anymore and some seek to take advantage of his rehabilitation.

When Jenny and family leave to stay with Lawrance, Raju sees them off.  After publicly exhorting Raju to come and visit, Danial privately and tearfully begs at Raju’s feet that he never come near them again lest it jeopardise his family’s prospects. The tragedy is not in witless people acting selfishly, but in likeable, practical people trying to do what they think is right and being aware of the pain they cause.

The opening titles introduce the ocean as a key player in the story, and the sound of the sea is a constant rhythm. The landscape and ocean are filmed with as much care as the actors. The music by Illayaraja is lovely, and the theme from ‘Are Emaindi’ is used to superb effect. The reprise at the end of the film is wonderful, and the changed lyrics help create the mood of anguish. I wish I could find clips with subtitles for the songs as they add so much meaning.

There are some flaws in the film but they didn’t really diminish the experience. I found some of the edits really clumsy and I wonder if maybe there were scenes missing from the DVD – it certainly felt like there was a lead up to a missing song in one section and a couple of scenes jumped quite suddenly. The climax is over the top; it relies on divine intervention, suffers from geographic inconsistencies as the village seems to change size, and Chiru is quite the ham in his cross village marathon. The actors had all given so much to make these characters come alive that I really cared what happened. And let’s be honest – I’ve seen much more unbelievable stuff than this (SRK in Kal Ho Naa Ho staggers to mind!). I didn’t need the voiceover at the end either; I’d already made up my version of ever after.

I admit to some tears, and Chiranjeevi’s Raju broke my heart. I give Aaradhana 4 and ½ stars (and three handkerchiefs).