Maniratnam's Roja: Bridging the North-South divide

It was just another movie that I wanted to see out of sheer curiosity because a Marathi colleague was strongly pushing for it, that too the original Tamil version. In the pre- Internet days, word of mouth publicity, had ensured that “Roza” (as he and most Northerners pronounced it) was one of the most eagerly looked forward to films of the year.

The “non Tamilian”, who didn’t understand a word of Tamil, gladly sat through the movie with me when we saw it in Aurora Talkies, Kings Circle. I wondered why the film would have struck a chord in the audiences across India, not Tamil Nadu alone. Perhaps it was to do with the then still fresh saga of Indian Oil Executive Director K. Doraiswamy’s safe release from his kidnappers or the larger, vicarious pleasure of seeing a fictional happy ending to the real miseries of the world. The dubbed Hindi version, released a few months later, bridged the North and South musically, heralding A.R.Rahman’s arrival on the national scene.

The story of Roja is enthralling by itself—a man from the South going North, getting kidnapped and then being brought back safely. There is, of course, the typical filmi touch—the woman’s love ensures that her man returns to her safe and sound. However, there are some interesting aspects that set Roja apart.

It was the first time that Kashmir’s fight for azaadi was shown on screen and the issue of militancy was addressed. Till that time terrorists in Hindi cinema were residents of some unknown foreign land, in films like Karma or Tehelka . Pankaj Kapur’s Liaqat, a Kashmiri who spoke Tamil in a heavy believable accent, was a perfect foil to the two innocents caught in the crossfire. Liaqat’s ease with Tamil was explained as being the result of him spending some time in the South.

This was probably one of the first instances in Indian cinema involving someone (Arvind Swamy’s boss) talking about crypto — a series of cryptographic codes that had to be protected. Perhaps the most realistic aspect of the movie, in the original Tamil version at least, is that the woman needs an interpreter to translate for her and the authorities. Roja is a rural girl, who doesn't know any other language except Tamil, is suddenly thrown into a situation where no one understands her. Thus you have Hindi, English and Tamil, all being spoken in the same movie. In other words a Tamil movie with Hindi dialogues.

There is an old saying that a war has no winner or losers, only victims. In this case Roja, the heroine, is the clear victim of the war of two systems that are ideologically and religiously on the opposite sides. The hero is finally freed by Liaqat’s sister, perhaps she too has been a victim. Much later, Rathnam repeated the core idea that, “war has only victims” in Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) where a daughter has to search for her mother who is a member of an unnamed liberation movement in Sri Lanka.

The fallout of Roja ’s success was that there was a rush of Mani Rathnam films that were quickly dubbed into Hindi and found a willing audience in the North. For example, the films Anjali (1990) and then later Thalapati (1991) whose dubbed version was released around 1993. His other films, Thiruda Thiruda (1994) and Bombay (1995), both were dubbed and released simultaneously in Hindi and Tamil.

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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 11:15:36 am |