30 years of Roja: A classic romance with a hard-hitting patriotic flavour

Released on 15 August 1992, Roja made director Mani Ratnam and music director AR Rahman household names across India.

ByLatha Srinivasan

Published Aug 15, 2022 | 8:00 AMUpdatedAug 16, 2022 | 5:15 PM

maniratnam roja

Thanks to the pandemic and a curb on international travel, Indians have been flocking to Kashmir to enjoy its beauty and cold climes.

But in the early 1990s, Kashmir was mired in a violent insurgency — not an ideal time for tourists.

It was against this background that ace director Mani Ratnam did the unthinkable — he set an entire film in Kashmir, focusing on the insurgency and its consequences, and the plight of people there.

Released on 15 August 1992, Roja made Mani Ratnam and music director AR Rahman household names across India.

A turning point in Indian cinema

The story of Roja is a straightforward one, as we all know. A Kashmiri separatist group kidnaps intelligence analyst Rishi Kumar (Arvind Swami) and it’s his wife Roja (Madhoo), a simple village belle, who struggles in an impossible situation to have him freed.

The movie is a classic and a turning point in Indian cinema, thanks to the strong narrative, powerful visuals, and profound music.

At the heart of the film is not just an intense love story, but one of the most patriotic heroes Indian cinema has seen, one who seems destined to give his life for the country.

Mani Ratnam and AR Rahman

Throwback times: Mani Ratnam and AR Rahman during the promotion of Roja. (Facebook/madrastalkiesofficial)

There are many scenes in the film that keep reiterating this aspect — when a man from the Kashmiri separatist group burns the Indian flag, Rishi breaks free through a window and falls on the burning flag to protect his motherland, albeit symbolically.

Elevated by Rahman’s beautiful music, this scene saw audiences tear up.

Roja gives us a glimpse of what Kashmir was like at the time — the apprehension, uncertainty, and fear that people lived with every day, amid that turmoil.

Mani Ratnam doesn’t go into an in-depth discussion of the Kashmir issue and prefers to keep his focus on the romance of Rishi and Roja, and what happens to them against this backdrop.

I think what made the movie relatable to the audience was not just the patriotic aspect, but this intense love story and the struggle the couple have to go through.

Love story laced with patriotism

Rishi is an educated, sophisticated, urban man, while Roja is a simple, innocent, village girl who is starry-eyed by life’s small surprises.

The song “Chinna Chinna Aasai” (small wishes) depicts and captures her charming, rustic life so poignantly here.

Rishi’s posting in Kashmir and the romance that blossoms between the couple against the snow-capped mountains and valleys of flowers are what most young people — especially women — dream of, and fell in love with when the film was released.

In this arranged marriage, it appears as if the gods themselves blessed the union. Such is the magical portrayal of their relationship on screen.

Life takes a nasty turn when Rishi is kidnapped by separatists; and while he is trying his best to outsmart his kidnappers and escape, it is Roja who takes over the story and shines.

K Balachander, AR Rahman and Mani Ratnam at Roja audio launch

K. Balachander, who produced Roja under his Kavithalayaa Productions, AR Rahman and Mani Ratnam at the audio launch of Roja. (Facebook/madrastalkiesofficial)

Though she is innocent and comes from a conservative background, she speaks her mind and proves that she is not weak — with her strength coming through in the way she fights for her husband’s release.

Grit and conviction are what she has in spades and this is probably a reflection of society and the millions of women living in villages across India.

Roja doesn’t give up — and we see her perseverance win this personal battle in the larger war on the ground.

We also see determination from Rishi to survive against all odds, not just for Roja, but for the country too.

The happy ending of the film spreads one message: Love and hope against all odds.

Roja inspired by a real-life story!

While Mani Ratnam must be hailed for making Roja, it is Arvind Swami and Madhoo who brought the film to life with their fine performances.

The director was reportedly inspired by the real-life story of Indian Oil Corporation’s Executive Director K Doraiswamy, who was kidnapped by Kashmiri militants on 28 June, 1991.

Doraiswamy’s wife is said to have fought for him and he was released 54 days later, in exchange for nine militants after pressure from the media and the Indian government.

A still from Mani Ratnam's Roja

Madhoo and Arvind Swami in a still from Mani Ratnam’s Roja. (YouTube)

Roja marked a turning point in the Indian film industry, and Mani Ratnam gave birth to a new nationalist trend in cinema.

He also bridged the North-South divide in Indian cinema. With his strong content, he proved that a good story will resonate with audiences across languages.

This was further proved with his two other films in his nationalist trilogy starting with RojaBombay and Dil Se.

With Roja, Mani Ratnam cemented his place as the first truly pan-Indian director from South India.