Film critic Shanku Sharma looks at Mani Ratnam's "Roja" with a new perspective
Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam shot into the limelight with films like Mouna Ragam (1986) and Nayakan (1987). But one of his best-known movies is Roja (1992), which stars Arvind Swamy and Madhoo.
Roja begins in a disturbed Kashmir, where we see a terrorist getting captured by the army. Cut to the next scene, where there is a sunrise in a presumably South Indian village (large coconut and palm trees appear). A few scenes later, it is established that the place is a village in Tamil Nadu. There is calmness and romanticism in the air. We are introduced to a happy-go-lucky girl, dancing and frolicking (the song, "Chinna Chinna Aasai"). The connection between Kashmir and Tamil Nadu is established in the scenes that follow. Rishi Kumar (played by Arvind Swamy), who works as a cryptologist for the R.A.W. agency of Indian Intelligence for the Indian army, marries Roja (played by Madhoo). Theirs is an arranged marriage. Life gets going easily until Rishi is asked to accomplish a task that has been left undone because of the sudden death of Rishi’s chief. They move to Kashmir, where life takes a sharp turn when Rishi gets kidnapped. Thus, the connecting scenes (first and second) assume meaning. What follows is the struggle of a married woman to save her husband from the clutches of the kidnappers (maybe even death). What Roja goes through when her husband gets kidnapped is all about Roja. One can say the film tells the story of a troubled Kashmir seen through the eyes of a newlywed Roja.
Scenes establishing the lives of the simple South Indian villagers are well-enacted and well-detailed. There is conflict in some scenes (Roja rebukes Rishi for not marrying her sister). Later, he says how he was urged by her sister to say no to the marriage (Roja’s sister loves another man). These conflicts get. resolved, and Roja comes closer to Rishi. Rishi, a bookworm and workaholic, also does the same. The literal meaning of Roja is "rose," which also has thorns. Though Rishi and Roja spend quality time in Kashmir (the song Pudhu Vellai), it is short-lived. These struggles and turbulence bring out the fire in Roja. It is believed that a dutiful wife can go to any length to save her husband. Indeed, Roja is a love story set against the backdrop of terrorist activities in Kashmir.
There can be another interpretation of the name of the film (Roja). Though the world knows that Kashmir is a paradise on Earth (it is rosy), it also has thorns since there cannot be any rose without thorns. The same applies to the character Roja. One of the most contrasting scenes is when Rishi gets kidnapped while Roja says her prayers in a temple. Most definitely, the viewers did not expect God to answer her prayers like this.
The camera (by Santosh Sivan) speaks volumes. Sivan’s works match the moods of the characters with scenes. The scenic beauty of the small village in Tamil Nadu speaks a lot. The challenge for Sivan was to create and show Kashmir without the film being shot in Kashmir (hill stations included Coonoor, Ooty, and Manali). So, in the Kashmir sequences, the audience only sees the snow when Roja sees it for the first time. There are various tracking shots of various characters in the film. One can marvel at the genius of Santosh Sivan. The film’s daring subject matter and treatment of the theme of terrorism have helped the film's longevity, even after three decades.