Roja-The Rose That Smelled A Genius


With around 10 films (in all four major South Indian languages) under his belt and 3 National Awards to his credit, Mani Ratnam had become a big thing down South. Feroze Khan had officially adapted one of his films ‘Nayagan’ into ‘Dayavan’. And ‘Anjali’ as a children’s film also became popular among many families. However, the director was yet to become a household name outside the South Indian Film Industry. That’s when ROJA happened.

Mani Sir’s penchant for films revolving around terrorism and terror stricken families is not uncommon. From Kannathil Muththamittaal, Dil Se, to Bombay (not terror but Mumbai riot), he has dealt with the repercussions of violence with varied plots and intriguing storylines. And Roja was one of his earliest attempts at the same.

Everyone’s aware of the political turmoil that has been plaguing the Kashmir valley from time immemorial. For a regional film industry, dealing with national or internationally sensitive issues is itself a tough task, because you risk the chances of disconnect with the local audience. In that margin itself, Roja stands out as a brave film.

But that act of bravery is the least of the credible aspects of ROJA. For me, the factors that work majorly in favour of ROJA are:

1) the love story between Madhu & Arvind
2) the politics of language
3) Pankaj Kapur as the terrorist with a good heart
4) the MUSIC

1. Lets start with the Love Story.

I won’t talk about the plotline, coz I am sure everyone here is already aware of the same. I still remember the scene where Arvind Swamy chooses Madhu over her elder sister (of course there was a reason behind it) and her reaction about that. The man she adored at the first sight suddenly appears as the villain, for having chosen her for marriage. The coldness in her reaction continues till the revelation comes, just before they head off to Kashmir. Though the Hindi dialogue ‘main bohut bhola dikhta hoon na?’ [or something like that] sounded extremely cheesy, but the chemistry between Arvind & Madhu more than made up for it. Two more scenes that work brilliantly for the film:

a) When Arvind gets kidnapped – the entire scene is sudden and shocking. The way Madhu helplessly chases the cars for so long leaves me with goosebumps everytime I see the film.
b) The climax when Arvind is finally set free and he staggers across the bridge, with Madhu running in from the other end, with ‘Bharat Humko Jaan Se Pyaara Hai’ playing in the background. That scene never fails to moisten my eyes.

Of course, the entire passion in their love, her interactions with the temple guy, his attempts to flee and save the Indian flag – it would be very tough to segregate great scenes from a film, which has scores of those.

2. The Politics of Language

It is a rarely discussed thing in Indian cinema – which is almost always lost in its delusion of happiness. Especially, in a country like India, where every region is distinct in its choice of language, culture and traditions, the politics of language is a very big thing. We all know about the Hindi – non-Hindi divide that is still deterrent in a true amalgamation of South & North India. While the former thinks that Hindi has been pushed down their throats as a National Language, the latter ridicules the former for being non-conversant with it. Roja, in a subtle non-controversial way, presented this disparity in the conversation between Roja (the Tamilian girl who doesn’t understand Hindi) and the primarily Sikh army officers who don’t understand Tamil. The plight of the woman who is trying to convince the soldiers to help her husband and yet the inability to communicate the same was one of the masterstrokes of the film. Special mention is deserved by the actor who played the temple guy who acts as the mediator cum translator between Roja and the army men. What irked me about the Hindi version of Roja, was the fact that this entire aspect of the film got diluted. What was a Tamil – Hindi debate, became a Hindi – English thing, where the focus shifted from the language war to that of literacy and illiteracy. I know there was not much way out for the director when he wanted to come out with the dubbed Hindi version. Yet…

3. Pankaj Kapur as Liaqat

If Shahid were half as good an actor as his father, he would have been a superstar. There is no denying the fact that the film belonged to Madhu, who as the eponymous protagonist, put in an extremely earnest effort and did a fabulous job at portraying Roja. It was the role of her career and a dream-role for any actress to portray. Arvind Swamy became a sensation among women. And all the aunties went lusting about the soft faced, thick mustached, plump man (by Bollywood standards at least) who, no doubt, played the role of Rishi (the ideal husband – citizen – journalist) ably. But he hammed a bit too much in his emotional scenes, where he overacted (in my opinion) to express the pain and honour. Though I must mention that the scene where he risks his life to save the burning Indian flag is one of the highpoints of the film and Arvind Swamy deserves all the claps that he got for that scene. The Kashmiri girl, who serves food to Arvind and delivers a soft corner for him, left a strong impact even in that miniscule role. However, Pankaj Kapur as the terrorist with ideals – and trying to balance the counter forces running in his heart, is simply outstanding. The man has given several delectable performances and Roja is a reaffirmation of his standard. His respect for Arvind Swamy’s character, gradual dilemma over his own actions (especially after the death of his brother), staunchness of thoughts, every reaction is so balanced that you almost feel bad for him at the end. You know the mark of a great actor when he converses with his eyes, and you overlook his physical stature because his character rises way beyond it. While reminiscing Kapur’s performance in Roja, I cannot help but think of another extra-ordinary performance by this actor (of course he has many more) in Maqbool.


We all know that ROJA was the launchpad for the most revered musician of today’s film music – A R Rahman. Everyone knows Mani Sir prefers working with the best technician available in the industry. He had a long collaboration with the great music director Ilaiyaraja in his previous films. However, with ROJA, Mani Sir brought a new guy to the recording. And trust one genius to find another. Rahman came, Rahman saw, Rahman conquered. Every song in the album is a marvel – proudly reflecting the magnificence of the composer. Not only the debut of Rahman, ROJA also ushered the entire concept of digitally composed music into the Indian film fraternity. The fact that TIME Magazine has listed Roja’s album as one of the top 10 soundtracks of all time speaks a lot about the quality of it. However, the irony is that the weakest of the songs (though not weak by any standard margin) was also the most popular – Rukhmini Rukhmini with its corny lyrics and peppy beats became an instant hir. My favourites, however, are Dil Hai Chhota Sa and Yeh Haseen Wadiya.. The lilting melody coupled with Chitra and Hariharan’s voice spell magic even now.. (Yes, I am referring to the Hindi names for the songs because that’s how I have heard them, loved them and remembered them).. The background music is equally amazing with Bharat Humko Jaan as the only non-lip sync song being extremely effective..

What made the songs even more special were the visuals – whether it’s the lush green Tamil Nadu, the small boat floating over the river, or the snow capped terrain of Kashmir, Santosh Sivan’s camera enhanced the mood of every song. The DOP, one of the finest in the country, has produced some other great works with Ratnam as well, which include Dil Se and Raavan / Raavanan. His brilliance has already been elaborated in some of the previous posts in the Blogathon, so I won’t repeat the same..

Roja is definitely one of the current age classics, and will go down as a trendsetter for many reasons. Undoubtedly a technical wonder, with a strong political undertone (it had been rumoured that Roja became so popular that even the terrorists of Kashmir got a copy of it), what makes the film glitter the most is the strong humane element and the undying love (one of the most under-rated romances of Indian cinema) between the pair. At the same time, when a filmmaker creates a wonder like Roja, he has to live up to the burden of maintain such high standards everytime he sets out to make a movie. To an extent, Roja suffers from the successor syndrome. Though Mani Sir has created some brilliant film post Mumbai, none have come up to Roja. Though I can’t claim to have seen all his works, but of those that I have, Nayagan is the only one I can give a stature as high as Roja. Given the fact that Mani Sis is making a female protagonist film (KADAL) now, almost 20 years post ROJA, it would be very interesting to see if the director can make his forthcoming work match up to his previous films.

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)


  1. ROJA is a good example of effective screenwriting. The dialogue is quite minimal, and the plot is almost too simple for a feature film. Yet the poignancy of every scene, its emotions, the idea of this playful little girl thrown into a situation where she has to free her husband from terrorists. It’s what cinema is about.

    The film also is significant for Tamil cinema because it marked the handing over of the baton from the original master to the successor. The film was produced by K. Balachander, the grandfather of Tamil cinema. It was almost symbolic, that after Mani Ratnam had made his mark, KB produced this film, almost to say, “I’m done now. It’s your turn”.

    Mani Ratnam’s cinema and style can be split into pre and post-Roja. Somewhere along the way, the classical ways were lost for a while with this film. Mani Ratnam became the man who knew how to make film look good. Opulence started taking over his cinema. Pretty locations, grand song picturizations. While he still made good films after Roja, the style had transitioned from the classical to a very distinct, post-modern one.


    1. @seventhsamurai: talking about passing the baton, what about rahman composing instead of iliyaraja. guess that also qualifies !


      1. Well, that baton wasn’t really “passed”, so to speak. Mani Ratnam, even today regards Ilayaraja as a far greater composer than Rahman. Word has it that before K. Balachander came into the picture as producer, Mani Ratnam and his brother were negotiating the deal with Ilayaraja who wanted the music rights of the film in addition to his pay. When they couldnt come to an agreement, matters got ugly, and Mani Ratnam stormed straight into Rahman’s makeshift studio remembering a recommendation made by a friend a long time ago, more as a challenge than anything, that he was willing to now go with an unknown music director. The rest is history.


      2. @seventhsamurai: is this trivia from the ‘grapevine’ ? sounds too unreal … but thanks for bringing it up 🙂


  2. Roja if I am not wrong probably remains the only film which ran for a record 50 weeks at Metro – Fort(Mumbai) in the matinee show. Still remember i was standing in the advance counter to book the tickets for Andaz Apna Apna and the matinee show on a Monday was housefull in that 50th week.

    The songs were such a rage that it even had a Marathi album released.

    One of the few film in the 90’s where I witnessed a standing ovation from the local Mumbai crowd after the movie got over.

    Like seventhsamurai has rightly said above, it was a passing of mantle from a living legend(K Balachander) to his disciple.


    1. Roja opened to empty halls in Tamil Nadu. Luckily, those were the times a film could be sustained in the theatres, and producers could wait for word of mouth to pick up. And that it did, gradually. In Hindi it was instantly successful because up til then, audiences had seen nothing like it. And of course they were mesmerized by the music and photography.


      1. Yes the tax free status helped it big time as even the smaller centres were running to packed houses.

        The success of the film tempted Rajan Lall who had already dubbed Apoorva Sahodragal to Appu Raja to release Thalapathi as Dal-Pati just few months before Bombay was to hit screens.

        Another trivia, Mammotty refused the role which was eventually played by Nasser.


  3. Yes Roja was truly a landmark film. While Mouna Raagam& Nayagan were already acclaimed films, its Roja which made Mani Ratnam almost a household name across the country.I still remember my 1st viewing of the film with friends from school-at the end of the film I was all in awe of the music,the writing,the cinematography etc & when I asked some of the girls in my class what they felt about the movie this is what they had to say-“oh!we didn’t really notice anything else since we were too focused on Arvind Swamy all throughout :)”. Chinna Chinna Aasai/DIil Yeh Chota Sa was all over us @ that point of time. Madhoo was wonderful in the film & its a pity that she never managed to get such a powerful role in the rest of her career. I can just go on & on about the film…..


  4. Before Border, this was one of all time favourite of DD.Remember seeing it, first time on DD Tamil version with English subtitles, it still so fresh even today.It is sad apart from this and Yahaan , nobody has portrayed situation of Kashmir better than this films.Kannathil Muthamittal also had a girl as central character.


  5. thank you everyone for sharing your wonderful thoughts.. 🙂
    of course, my knowledge about the industry is pretty limited.. and i got to know quite a few insights.. thanks for that..
    Ashwin – yes Kannathil Muthamittal did have a girl as the central character but it was more of a family’s journey for me, of course Amudha was the fulcrum but Simran & Madhavan had equally crucial roles.. and somehow, i had my heart going out for Simran :-)..


  6. Superb Post Souvik.Like u rightly said Roja permanently etched Mani Sir’s name in the mind of each and every India household. For me too , Roja was the point of realizing the existence of Mani Sir’s genius. Prior to this, i was aware to an extent of Nayagan to quite an extent thanks to Dayavan). But after Roja , every Mani Ratnam film was eagerly awaited.
    This happened due to the fact that i got quite a wide release and the music also created a rage. Superb performances, brilliant cinematography, awesome music the plus points of the film are endless.
    Perhaps the first time , that the topic of Kashmir was portrayed sensitively and realistically. The characterization of Pankaj Kapoor was also superb. For the first time the villain or antagonist was depicted as realistically as possible. The picturisation of ‘Bharat Humko’ was superb as you rightly mentioned.
    I remember for quite few years since Roja had relaesd, the Bharat Humko song was a common choice for group singing competitions,Independence day , Republic and other such occasions till Sarfarosh hd released and ‘Zindagi Maut Na ban Jaaye’ had become the popular for such occasions.
    Though the dubbing robbed the film of some of its charm(it was the same for Bombay to an extent) but still it didn’t make it any less memorable film.
    It was one of the rare times when a dubbed film had created such a huge buzz and all for the right reasons. Thank you for refreshing all the memories.


  7. moments and moments and moments, this film is full of that greatness, very few films are that pure and honest……. Whattay Article @Souvik………. !!!!!!


  8. Hi Souvik,

    Thanks for the wonderful review. Nevertheless, I was a bit puzzled on looking at the hindi dialogues you quoted. It was only then I knew that you were reviewing the Hindi version instead of the original Tamil version. My bad 😉

    I guess Roja is the first film that gained Maniratnam a nation-wide recognition due to the success the film gained. However, I have to agree with SeventhSamurai’s points and I quote:

    “Mani Ratnam’s cinema and style can be split into pre and post-Roja. Somewhere along the way, the classical ways were lost for a while with this film. Mani Ratnam became the man who knew how to make film look good. Opulence started taking over his cinema. Pretty locations, grand song picturizations. While he still made good films after Roja, the style had transitioned from the classical to a very distinct, post-modern one.”

    I agree with the above words too. Before Roja came into the picture, Mani’s films dealt mainly with characters and emotions and how well he connected us with the characters he created. But with Roja and most his subsequent films, Mani seems to be paying less attention to this aspect and more on the outlook of the films itself. I seriously wish that that Mani who connected with us via Mouna Raagam, Anjali and Agni Natchathiram comes back once again to give another “our film” once again.


  9. I remember watching the movie Roja as a kid, and even back then I was touched and enthralled by the on screen romance of the lead. Today years later, married and with 3 kids I better understand and relate to the shy innocent and committed love of the duo in the movie….even the setting and the locales that the movie has been shot in (especially the Kashmir shots where the love between the two blooms ), are reflective of the quiet yet expansive pure unconditional love of the two. I love how madhu potrayeded her character with such child like innocence that even the love scenes between the two is so endearingly subtle and tastefully done that we actually feel that the chemistry is real as opposed to the usual forced , jarred and distastefully done love scenes. Madhu is so convincing in her role, that you can feel the aura of the naive village girl throughout the first half of the movie. I can go on actually about the movie, the song, especially pudhu vellai mazhai…the shots, the settings, the music and the lyrics are all come together in what seems like effortless perfection….you can actually feel the tingling excitement and chill of the snow clapped weather and that of the new love blooming in the prelude part of the music and then the interlude of the song alternates into a more warmer feeling melody… that feeling one gets being in the warm embrace of the love of your life……writing all this has made me feel so nostalgic of an era gone by…maybe that is why I am suddenly gripped by it all…Roja is symbolic of a simpler time……and time which we all can never go back to…of youth that will pass by so quickly..and time that you can never rewind or ever go back to……….


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