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30 years of Roja: Revisiting the much-loved Mani Ratnam film

Mani Ratnam's Roja completes 30 years, and here's a compilation of everything we knew about its making.

30 years of Roja: Revisiting the much-loved Mani Ratnam film
Aravind Swamy and Madhoo Shah in a still from Roja
  • S Subhakeerthana

Last Updated: 07.46 AM, Aug 16, 2022

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Roja was the cinematic equivalent thirty years ago that forever changed how Indian films are made and experienced. Mani Ratnam and the team he assembled deserve a large portion of the credit. The director made the film on a Rs 1-crore budget with the help of mentor K Balachander. He hired Santosh Sivan to direct the cinematography division and Arvind Swami, who has only appeared in one film. After working with both in Thalapathy, the director knew they were a good fit for his vision. Roja was a complete package in a pre-Babri Masjid demolition of India, with a liberal dose of patriotism thrown in for good measure.

The film begins with images of Roja, a beautiful and daring village girl (Madhoo). She is eager to take on the world. She's honest, innocent, and a chatterbox. She marries Rishi (Arvind Swami), whom she was not particularly fond of. Roja experiences the biggest shock when Rishi is kidnapped right in front of her eyes. She is in a place she is unable to express herself due to linguistic barriers. This, however, does not dissuade her to try her luck, to find Rishi.

Roja is adamant about not leaving Kashmir until she has reclaimed her husband. She is prepared to speak with all parties involved to ensure Rishi's safety and release. This includes paying a visit to the dreaded terrorist Wasim Khan, whose interests are opposed to hers. She listens to his ideologically driven meanderings because it offers her a half-chance to make her point. Roja dashes from one pillar to the next. She does not give up hope, even after the government takes a hard line against the separatists, and uses all of her skills, including her tenacity, to get her way.

Finally, the saga comes to a romantic conclusion when Rishi escapes just before Wasim Khan is released. Even though Roja is overcome with emotion, she breaks down as if a heavy weight was off her shoulders. The conflict may rage on, but Roja's war is over. Madhoo excelled at portraying the complexities of Roja's struggles and adding nuance to her character, who begins as a bubbly villager but later transforms into a relentless force to save the love of her life.

Roja's images have stood the test of time. And, like the film's incredible music, Roja's camerawork signaled a new wave. "It was the best-looking Indian film I'd seen up to that point," Ravi Varman, cinematographer, had told the Hindu.

On Roja's making, Mani Ratnam had said, in an interview, as a filmmaker, he uses every tool he gets to tell a scene better, which he felt was more important. "The geography and lighting are important tools in telling the story. So, if the outdoors is going to play a role, make sure it helps you tell the story better. The set provides the appropriate mood and setting for the audience to focus on the characters' emotions."

Interestingly, Mani Ratnam admitted when he makes a film in Hindi, he feels a little more liberated. He explained the process, "I trust the writer a little more. I trust the actor a little more. I make them a little more responsible!"

Let's discuss the story of Roja, a bit. It's exhilarating in and of itself: a man from the south travelling north, being kidnapped, and then being returned safely. Of course, a lot of scenes feel 'cinematic'—and the lady love gets her man back! Roja was the first film to depict Kashmir's struggle for azaadi and to address the issue of militancy. Terrorists in Hindi cinema were previously depicted as residents of an unknown foreign land.

Pankaj Kapur's Liaqat, a Kashmiri with a heavy relatable accent who spoke Tamil, was a great foil to the two civilians caught in the crossfire. This was most likely one of the first times in Indian cinema that Arvind Swami's chief, (played by SV Venkataraman; S Ve Shekher's father) mentioned crypto—a series of cryptographic codes that needed to be protected. Roja, who speaks only Tamil, is suddenly thrust into a situation in which no one understands her.

As a result, Hindi, English, and Tamil are all spoken in the same film. In other words, it's a Tamil film with Hindi dialogue.

As a result of Roja's success, there was an influx of Mani Ratnam films that were quickly dubbed into Hindi and found a ready audience in the north. Anjali (1990) and Thalapathi (1991), both of which had dubbed versions released around 1993. Thiruda Thiruda (1994) and Bombay (1995) were both dubbed and released simultaneously in Hindi and Tamil.

So, if you haven't seen any of Ratnam's films, the trilogy of Roja, Bombay, and Dil Se is a good place to start!

Below are some of the interesting facts about Roja, in no specific order:

  • Mani Ratnam previously stated that Roja was not intended to be a political film. "It was a phase India was going through, and these things affected me and found their way into my work," he said in an interview. "It was a cry of anguish. I'm not sure whether to be happy or sad that these films are still relevant today. I wish these problems were a thing of the past."

  • Roja's success led to it being dubbed in Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, and Malayalam. They were all quite successful.

  • K Balachander approached Mani Ratnam about making a film for his banner, Kavithalaya Productions. The latter wanted it to be one of their best films because KB was Mani's inspiration.

  • Do you know what prompted Mani Ratnam to create Roja? Doraisamy, an Indian Oil Corporation executive, was kidnapped by Kashmiri militants in 1991 and held captive for two months. His wife was fighting for his release. And Roja was based on her predicament.

  • Mani Ratnam used a Steadicam for the first time in Roja, in the shot that introduces the terrorists' hideout to the audience.

  • Roja was created on a tight budget. The technicians worked for less pay, knowing that the film would do little business. It was not anticipated that it would become a cult classic.

  • In the Hindi version, Shakti Singh dubbed for Arvind Swami, while Madhoo dubbed for herself.

  • Veteran actor Lakshmi's daughter, Aishwarya, was initially offered the female lead, but she declined. She later admitted that she regretted her decision. Manisha Koirala was Mani Ratnam's other choice for the female lead.

  • Nana Patekar was cast as the terrorist leader, but he was replaced by Pankaj Kapur for unknown reasons.

  • Mani Ratnam approached Karishma Kapoor for the role of a Kashmiri girl, but she was not cast. The Bollywood actor was "far too expensive" for a Tamil film, the director had clarified, in an interview.

  • The entire film was finished in less than 60 days. Roja's total length was 3750 metres.

  • Roja, according to Mani Ratnam, is a modern retelling of the Satyavan-Savitri story.

  • K Balachander didn't like the title because it sounded too much like a label of crumbled betel nut. But Mani Ratnam felt Roja was representing Kashmir.

  • Mani Ratnam proposed another title to K Balachander, which was Irudhi Varai, but the ace director preferred Roja, which was ultimately chosen.

  • Roja was nominated for three National Awards: best composer, best lyricist, and best film on national integration.

  • Roja, along with Dil Se and Bombay, was screened at the 2015 London Film Festival in August 2015.

  • Roja was named one of Time Magazine's "10 Best Soundtracks of All Time."

  • In an interview, AR Rahman had said, he wasn't sure why I accepted Roja. "I was offered Rs 25,000 for it, a sum that I could make in 3 days composing ad jingles. I think it was the prospect of working with Mani that enticed me."

  • Mani Ratnam chose to depart from his decade-long collaboration with music composer Ilaiyaraaja in favour of his keyboard arranger who was known as AS Dileep Kumar. This is the team that made history with Vairamuthu's lyrics.

  • Despite his reluctance to work in films, AR Rahman accepted the offer because Mani Ratnam was identified as a director with good taste in music.

  • The Roja album sold more than 3 million copies, with the Tamil version selling over 200,000 and the Hindu version selling 2.8 million. The Hindi version alone brought in Rs 7.5 crore.

  • At the 18th Moscow International Film Festival, Roja was nominated for Best Film.

  • Mani Ratnam had planned to film Roja in Kashmir but ended up shooting in Ooty, Manali, and Coonoor, owing to terrorism. The iconic Chinna chinna aasai was shot in the Courtallam Falls.

(Roja streams on Amazon Prime Video)

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