Mani Ratnam's Roja completes 30 years, and here's a compilation of everything we knew about its making.
Last Updated: 07.46 AM, Aug 16, 2022
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:
(Roja streams on Amazon Prime Video)