Listening to: Roja (1992)


This film is proof that a decent film can be made with a simple concept. In essence, Roja is a love story painted on a background of terrorism. The first part describes the arranged marriage which brings the protagonists together and the small hiccups before the pair settle down. Then the movie moves on to the young man being abducted while on an assignment in Kashmir and the trauma that both people go through in quite different ways. It ends happily for those who, like me, prefer happy endings.

There are deeper questions which are addressed superficially – individual well-being vs collective interest, nationalism vs zealotry, terrorism and its cost, the ethics of prisoner exchange, child soldiers, collateral damage in war etc. All these are only touched upon with not much commentary; the director keeps his eyes focused on the protagonists. 

The leads Arvind Swamy and Madhoo give good performances. The director, Mani Ratnam, retains a reasonable pace and holds our interest throughout. But for me, the films stands out for two exceptional factors, the cinematography and the music.

One cannot see the film without noticing the extraordinary camera work. The lighting is so perfect! Each shot seems to be lovingly composed. Be it the lovely lush village of the South or the snow peaked wilderness of the North, the camera has captured the beauty of all it has surveyed. I paused often, looking at a frame like I would look at a painting in a museum. Santosh Sivan is not without reason the most awarded Director of Photography in India. He is an artist extraordinaire. I am a fan.

Musically, this film is very important because it is the debut movie score of wunderkind A.R.Rahman. With two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, four National Awards and fifteen Filmfare Awards, to name a few, his career has been exemplary. I fell in love with the music of Roja when I first heard it in 1992; nearly 20 years later I still listen to this album with great pleasure. In fact, I believe I like this early phase of Rahman’s music more than his later work.  This score was included in the Time Magazine Top-10 Soundtracks of all time in 2005. Vairamuthu’s lyrics are a good match for the beauty of Rahman’s music. A collector’s album. Note: The songs were translated into Hindi as well but as I listen only to the Tamil version, I cannot comment on them.

  • Chinna Chinna Asai – Minmini. A lovely list of wishes, this song reminds me of the sweetness of ‘favourite things’ from Sound of Music.

    சின்ன சின்ன ஆசை சிறகடிக்கும் ஆசை
    முத்து முத்து ஆசை முடிந்து வைத்த ஆசை
    வெண்ணிலவு தொட்டு முத்தமிட ஆசை
    என்னை இந்த பூமி சுற்றிவர ஆசை
    மல்லிகை பூவாய் மாறிவிட ஆசை
    தென்றலை கண்டு மாலை இட ஆசை
    மேகங்களை எல்லாம் தொட்டுவிட ஆசை
    சோகங்களை எல்லாம் விட்டுவிட ஆசை
    Little wishes, winged wishes,
    Pearl like wishes, secreted wishes,
    A wish to touch the moon and kiss it,
    A wish that the world circle around me,
    A wish to change into a Jasmine flower,
    A wish to garland a spring breeze,
    A wish to touch all the clouds,
    A wish to leave all sadness.
    Open-mouthed smile Red heart

  •  Rukmani – S.P.Balasubramaniam, Chitra. The lyrics make me uncomfortable as they are explicit, on the edge of vulgar, but the melody is very appealing. The rhythm section of Rahman’s ensemble conduct a veritable masterclass! A.R.Rahman’s magic is woven throughout. The choreography is excellent, this song is both worth listening to and worth watching. Open-mouthed smileRed heart
  • Pudhu Vellai Mazhai – Sujatha, Unni Menon. A slow and gentle song beautifully sung by Sujatha and Unni Menon. I love the instrumental interludes. Open-mouthed smile
  • Kadal Rojave – Sujatha, S.P.Balasubramaniam. Simply perfect! Lovely melody and equally beautiful interludes. How romantic are the lyrics! கண்ணுக்குள் நீதான் கண்ணீரில் நீதான் கண்மூடிப் பார்த்தால் நெஞ்சுக்குள் நீதான். ‘Only you in my eyes, only you in my tears, and if I close my eyes and see, only you in my heart.’ Well said! Open-mouthed smileRed heart
  • Tamizha Tamizha – Hariharan.  A nationalistic song, it starts quietly but rises to this wonderful exuberant crescendo which brings on goosebumps! Great music. Open-mouthed smile

You can listen to the album here.

I have selected two songs for you. Kadal Rojave is my favourite from this album.

And you must watch Rukmani for the dancing and the rhythms :


Filed under Bollywood 90's Music, Chitra, S.P.Balasubramaniam

14 responses to “Listening to: Roja (1992)

  1. Hello Suja,
    Thanks for this appreciative commentary of a movie which I enjoyed a great deal too! Mani Ratnam is one of my favourite directors.
    Er… What’s so explicit about Rukmani?
    cheers, yves

  2. Hi Yves, The Mani Ratnam-Santosh Sivan-A.R Rahman combination is an excellent one, isn’t it? And as to Rukmani lyrics, if the sexual innuendo and explicitness makes me uncomfortable, I am not going to translate it, am I ? 🙂 I confess to being a bit old fashioned but strangely enough the often explicit French comedies make me laugh but explicitness in Tamil lyrics makes me cringe! Double standards I suppose 🙂 cheers. Suja

    • a complexity explained away with such simple wit ! Music is above and beyond of lyrics shall we agree upon, then

      • You are absolutely right in this case! Here I am saying that the lyrics make me uncomfortable, at the same time it’s my featured song too!! But at other times, it’s the lyrics which make me love a song even if the melody is not to my taste. Melody, lyrics, rhythm .. Each have a part to play abs bring their own beauty to a song, or so I think…

  3. To all readers : Here is a link to the insightful and very intelligent review of Roja by Yves, the commentator above.
    How cleverly he has zoomed in on the theme of the film – and I quote ‘the two aspects deal with separation and reunion, perhaps we could call it a hymn rooted in the love of the land: its overall purpose is the refusal of separation, and the assertion that love must and will reunite those who are separated. Separatists are wrong, violent, and counter-nature. Roja fights for reunification with her husband, just as Mani Ratnam films for Kashmir to remain united to India.’

    • The metaphor as described above is interpreted with objectivity and integrity.And between Shuja and Yves the little leela of tease and bashfulness is foregrounded ever so naughtily ! Joy for us to read.

  4. Rumi

    We joined the institute just a few months after this movie was released and the song Chinna Chinna Aasai became the hostel anthem even in Kolkata

  5. Over the years the interlude in the Roja song is the first piece of music I hum … its a memory of childhood and of growing up rolled into one.

    I was travelling with my parents on a long south india trip around the time Roja released. That was when I realized the SPB sang in Tamil too and to this date my first memory of Chennai is loud speakers blazing “Sol Sol”.

    The hindi “Roja Janeman” has two versions by SPB and Hariharan. SPB was literally the only male voice I could hear in Telugu film music in the 90s and Hariharan’s dream like voice appealed much to me then. Now I’m not so sure I have such a clear preference … SPB’s voice is “Home”.

    The songs in Rehman-Maniratnam combinations are my songs of national integration. When I am humming any of these, I shift from Telugu to Hindi without realizing. And yes for the Roja song I do love saying “Sol Sol” at the end instead of “Roojaaaaa” as in Hindi or Telugu!

    Rehman’s earlier work is dearer to heart. I remember SPB once saying that Rehman went from being a Music composer in his early years to a music arranger. Maybe he had a point. Barring a few sufi numbers like Kwhaja mere Kwhaja (Jodha Akbar) and Maula Maula (Delhi 6) not many Rehman pieces live upto the aura of the wonder kid who started with Roja. (I love Rehman … I absolutely hated SPB fo his comment when I first heard it)

    My random musings are getting longer than your beautiful post now. I’ll stop and just say it was a beautiful beginning to the day.

    • Thank you for your lovely ‘musings’ Sanghamitra ! What an important Indian film music has in our collective psyche! How many memories and associations they trigger! We, of such different backgrounds, age-groups, life experiences, still find this common meeting point. When you say “I love saying ‘Sol Sol’ ” as you sing along, I immediately connect because somewhere, at some other time, I have done exactly the same !

      And I am glad you you too find the Rehman’s earlier work is dearer to our hearts. I hadn’t heard about SPB’s comment but I have a sneaking suspicion that I agree!
      Thanks again, Cheers, Suja

  6. Roja was like the first fresh breeze of air in the dhinka chika music of the 1980s and 1990s. I heard Roja’s songs around 1996 for the first time, I lived in a small village then and had no means to listen music other than Vividhbharti. Roja was telecasted on Doordarshan on Republic Day of 1997 and it was the first time I got to hear the genius of A. R. Rahman.

    I know no Tamil, I guessed the songs above from the description you have written. Still, I got Tamil Pudhu Vellai Mazhai in my collection, and I’m gonna plug that in in my ears while going asleep tonight.

    I would suggest you to review the latest ARR album, Rockstar. I loved all the songs of it, and from what I have learned about your musical taste, I guess you would like at least 13 out of 14 songs in it. And there is a Qawwali for you Kun Fayakun. I am eagerly waiting your review of Rockstar!

  7. @Ganesh : Truly, good music does cross borders! In the comments above I have a French speaker, a Bengali speaker, a Telugu speaker and a Marathi speaker all confessing to loving the music of Roja. That in itself is a testament to Rehman’s genius! I love the thought of a young lad somewhere in an Indian village catching Pudhu Vellaai Mazhai and loving the sounds!
    You recommend Rockstar then? I haven’t heard the album but did see one Sufi song on youtube and thought that it seemed worth a proper listen. Will review 🙂

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