Kollywood, Bollywood and Hollywood. Chronologically, it might be useful to see these as roughly the three phrases of A R Rahman. In a world where it's easy to fall prey to mediocrity and complacency especially after reaching the peak, Rahman is the rare music composer who has managed to reinvent his sounds and aesthetics in every decade just when we think he's about to run out of fresh ideas. The Western world first noticed him in Slumdog Millionaire with the big Oscar win. That was exactly a decade ago. He had burst onto the Bollywood scene much earlier, with Bombay and Rangeela. The year was 1995. For the act of introducing A R Rahman's ministry-of-new genius to Hindi movie-goers, we can forgive the unpredictable Ram Gopal Varma for all the experimental trash he subjected us to in the millennium. For us, '90s was a time when the familiar melodies spun by the likes of Nadeem-Shravan, Jatin-Lalit, Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik and Kumar Sanu was comfort food. Guess, the Tamil audiences were luckier. They got to know the maestro from Madras much earlier. That film was Roja. And what a revolutionary soundtrack it turned out to be, a massive game-changer as much for Rahman as for the Tamil and Hindi music industries.
Back in the '90s, A R Rahman was a maker of jingles and ready to mingle when director Mani Ratnam discovered him almost accidentally and got him on board for Roja. This was a young film with relatively new faces that Ratnam was slated to make for his mentor, the great K Balachander. Now, as any Tamil cinema fan will tell you, Ratnam never worked without the legendary Ilaiyaraaja. Same with Balachander. Between them, from the 1970-80s onward, the trio has produced some of Tamil cinema's greatest soundtracks in what can be described as Kollywood's golden period. Unfortunately, after their fallout in Puthu Puthu Arthangal (1989) Balachander and Ilaiyaraaja reportedly split. It was a loss from which Tamil cinema would have never recovered, if not for Rahman's timely arrival to fill the vacuum. Subsequently, Ratnam and Ilaiyaraaja — the team behind such enigmatic classics as Nayagan, Mouna Ragam, Thalapathi and Anjali — also parted, making way for the young Rahman. Since then, Rahman became Ratnam's constant musical companion. "He's a very director-friendly music composer, in the sense that he'd go whichever way you want him to go and yet, within that he will find his own level," Ratnam raved in a BFI interview in 2015. Ratnam described his iconic partnership with Rahman as "liberating," adding that every project with him is like a "first film."
Totally Rahman: The Time honour
The Rahman-Ratnam duo have given us Bombay, Iruvar, Alaipayuthey, Kannathil Muthamittal, Thiruda Thiruda, Dil Se.., Yuva, Guru and O Kadhal Kanmani. One landmark soundtrack after another. Yet, Roja is one score that remains hugely special and never fails to impress, even after all these decades. It's not their best. Perhaps, Bombay is. Bombay is certainly Mani Ratnam's favourite album and who knows, maybe Rahman's too. Other fans might pick Alaipayuthey or its Hindi version, Saathiya (directed by Ratnam's assistant Shaad Ali), which is elevated further by Gulzar's sublime bard-ery. As many critics have pointed out, Roja (1992) ushered in a new era for Tamil music. Never before have tunes sounded so folksy and so utterly modern at the same time. There was something refreshing about it and no wonder, everyone sat up and noticed. No less a critic than Richard Corliss hailed it as "celestial melody." Writing for the venerable Time magazine in 2010, he compared Rahman's rhythms to the pop symphonies of Ennio Morricone's mashup Westerns. "This astonishing debut work," Corliss wrote, "parades Rahman’s gift for alchemizing outside influences until they are totally Tamil, totally Rahman. He plays with reggae and jungle rhythms, fiddles with Broadway-style orchestrations, runs cool variations on Morricone’s scores for Italian westerns."
Splitting between a Tamil village, Madras and Kashmir, Roja starts out as a simple love story but soon transforms into a kidnapping drama. Ratnam's Roja is a sweet-faced country girl who loves her blissful life. Her name means rose in Tamil and she's played by the innocent Madhoo making her debut opposite newcomer Arvind Swami, whose only previous outing was Ratnam's Thalapathi. The first ditty of the film is also its most endearing and sets the tone for the rest of the album. Sung by Minmini, "Chinna chinna aasai" — or "Chhoti si asha" as the Hindi audiences know it — is Roja's introduction to the viewers as she sings her heart out, revealing her humble wishes and desires. And they aren't much.
Written by the eminent lyricist Vairamuthu (a multiple National award winner who should be better known in the rest of the country than he is), "Chinna chinna aasai" lands on your ears as gently as a mountain breeze. It's deceptively simple in its cinematic aspiration and has the lightness of a lullaby. Its Hindi reincarnation faithfully sticks to the original, working the same hillbilly imagery that makes "Chinna chinna aasai" so unforgettably catchy. "The song became a part of my name and I’ve always felt proud of that," singer Minmini told The Hindu in 2017, on the occasion of Roja's 25th anniversary.
Infused with Vairamuthu's fable-like visual workmanship, the song has Roja longing to kiss the moon and wishing the earth orbit around her, for a change. Framed against the hills and paddy fields, the tiny Roja appears tinier and even more insignificant. But hers is the tiny tale director Mani Ratnam wanted us to know. She is not your typical heroine but when the time is right, she will rise to the occasion and prove her heroic deeds. Back in the village, the dreamy-eyed Roja is still some years away from her coming-of-age. She enjoys pottering about. "Chinna chinna aasai" explores her curiosity depicting her as a happy-go-lucky soul who humours the village's elderly, bathes in the waterfall and kills time watching the world go by.
Soon, as viewers will discover, Roja will be forced into a marriage that she isn't initially too happy about. But even after marriage, her childlike innocence remains intact and maturity hits her only much later. The groom Rishikumar (Arvind Swami) is Madras-born and bred, a typical city slicker who becomes an object of curiosity the moment he lands in the village to fulfil his long-cherished dream of marrying a simple girl. The prospective groom, in fact, comes to see Roja's sister but when he learns that she's in love with someone else he instantly points at Roja as a second choice, much to the chagrin of the humble bride's family. Roja has no option but to bow down to her family's wishes. Her life takes a sharp turn as she moves to Madras and once there, struggles to find her feet. The scenes between Roja and Rishikumar as a newly-married couple on the cusp of starting a life together are proof that Mani Ratnam is no ordinary filmmaker. Mani Sir, as he's respectfully called by the industry, is a highly introspective and intuitive magician. He's also one of the best filmmakers in India who knows how to create a memorable melody and shoot a song. Often resembling music videos, his songs are a special and separate genre unto themselves. And his popularity isn't restricted to hometown Chennai alone. He's a man who transcends borders, perhaps the most famous South Indian export in North India after idli-dosa and A R Rahman. So, what's the secret to Mani Sir's success? "I always look for genuineness," Ratnam said in one interview. In his cinema, he remarked, he always looks at striking an artful balance between entertainment and "being honest to your original thought." Known for his sensitive and slice-of-life take on relationships involving urban couples, Ratnam splices the chemistry between Roja and Rishikumar with a realistic trajectory. Like most of his on-screen couples, they stand at the intersection of traditional and modern values. Many viewers will find an emotional connect with Roja and Rishikumar as their relationship settles into domestic bliss after a somewhat shaky start.
Roja opens like a pulsating thriller, with Indian soldiers with sniffer dogs charging into a forest. A reimagining of Mahabharata's Savitri and Satyavan fable, the movie soon finds a way to send its Savitri into the forest and put her through trial and tribulations. Like Savitri, she will clash with the God Yama to bring her husband back. Set in Kashmir, the later section of the film is also inspired by a real-life kidnapping incident against the backdrop of terrorism and shows Ratnam's commitment to examine political developments of the day. If 1995's Bombay was about the communal riots in a city that Ratnam always thought was the cosmopolitan heart of India, then Roja was his response to the rising insurgency in Kashmir. Roja was probably one of the first mainstream films to deal with the Kashmir conflict. Before Maachis. Before Haider. Before Shahid Kapur gave voice to the Kashmiri angst in Haider, it was his father who played a terrorist and openly demanded 'azaadi.' In Roja, Kapur's Liaqat abducts Rishikumar, a cryptologist and computer engineer sent on a mission to Kashmir. A demand is promptly made to release a dreaded terrorist from Kashmiri police custody in exchange of Rishikumar.
Both Rishikumar and Roja are anomalies in the Valley, the unsuspecting Tamilians in Kashmir. Poor Roja, especially, is lost. There's both horror and humour in a scene when Roja breaks a coconut at a temple on her first morning in Kashmir — trying to convince the "North Indian god" to talk to her "South Indian" counterpart so that the deity can forgive Roja's earlier transgressions — and suddenly finds herself hemmed in by gun-toting armed forces guarding the area. This remarkable scene best encapsulates Kashmir's militarisation and the presence of security cover to counter it and how the gun and bomb blasts became a part of the average Kashmiri's daily ritual. The rest of the film revolves around Roja's attempt to find her kidnapped husband and though Roja glosses over the grave Kashmir crisis (like Liaqat's change of heart thanks to Rishikumar's relentless speechifying and proselytising), it is still commendable that a mainstream Tamil/Hindi film mustered the courage to take up the cudgels.
If Kashmir's complex politics isn't fully justified as the filmmaker opts for a more simplified, open-and-shut approach, the Valley's pristine beauty also (sadly) goes under-explored. Except when the Tamil couple see snow for the first time and break into "Puthu Vellai Mazhai". It is a class apart but its Hindi version "Yeh haseen vaadiyan" is equally exquisite. Sung by S.P Balasubrahmanyam and K.S Chithra, it has easily remained one of the film's most popular tracks in the Hindi-speaking world over the decades. Equally first-rate is Hariharan's "Thamizha Thamizha" which became, for the convenience of Hindi speakers in North India, "Bharat humko jaan se pyaara hai". While the original is an ode to the glory of the Tamil people, the Hindi adaptation is more inclusive. The lyrics celebrate the greatness of India as a whole, giving it just the right amount of patriotic flourish. It's a mystery how, in this golden age of Indian ultra-nationalism, this anthem has not caught on yet, remaining on the edges of public memory instead of getting its proper due. While on it, here is some fodder for Indians of the jingoistic disposition — Rishikumar's heroic act of saving the national flag from dishonour and his constant defence of India, with repeated chants of 'Jai Hind.' If Roja were to re-release today and play in theaters with probably Akshay Kumar or John Abraham in the lead, these extra-patriotic lines would no doubt receive a standing ovation. Pardon us for giving these new-age Manoj Kumars ideas that they might find, err, irresistible. Seriously though, the country's mood is the most nationalistic in decades and some parts of Roja fit right in. In an ideal world, it would only be a matter of time before the earnest Rishikumar became a rightwing mascot. But that's not what Mani Ratnam would want of his hero. After all, the mogul of Madras Talkies has been one of the detractors of rightwing politics. He was one of the signatories in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi over concerns about mob lynching incidents in recent years. An FIR was lodged against him and other eminent personalities.
Much in Kashmir has changed since Roja's release — and still, much else has remained the same. Recently, Article 370 that granted Jammu & Kashmir special status was revoked, hoping to bring an end to the decades-long suffering and turmoil. Roja's message was one of peace, just as Bombay's was. With Roja and Bombay, Mr Pacifist Ratnam proved that a film can express political ideology through the lives and eyes of ordinary people who suffer the most. And what to say of Rahman's genre-breaking soundtrack that hasn't been said before? It redefined film music in India and gave us the peerless Rahman who, in his own way, is a gift that keeps giving. Listening to Roja's songs today, especially "Chhoti si asha" and the Tamil original, reminds you of a simpler time and age — a dreamy goodnight kiss from our near-idyllic childhood in pre-liberalisation India. Asked by NDTV in 2013 to recollect his most memorable moment in his musical journey of over two decades, Rahman promptly replied, "When Mani Ratnam and Balachander signed me for Roja." He said he knew things wouldn't be the same for him. Indeed, with Roja, A R Rahman raised the bar, for himself and for Tamil and Hindi film music. When you start with the best, as he did with Roja, often the only way to go is up and up. After Roja, "it was a kind of oath I took that I should not go down. So the milestone was set and I had to live up to it."
And, so he has.