The scene when Rishi falls on a burning flag to put out the fire is iconic.

25 years since Roja Has the depiction of patriotism on screen changedScreenshot/ Youtube
Flix Cinema Tuesday, August 15, 2017 - 16:01

The handsome Indian cryptologist held captive by a deadly separatist group in Kashmir watches in horror as a man takes the Indian flag outside the hide-out and sets it on fire. The leader of the group offers his Islamic prayers calmly even as the cryptologist breaks the glass on the door and rushes outside, falling on the burning flag to put out the fire.

The rousing music brings a lump to the throat, tears to the eyes, goosebumps to the flesh. The cryptologist will not give up on the flag even as his clothes catch fire.

Released on August 15 twenty five years ago, this scene from the Mani Ratnam classic Roja was enough for the average movie-goer to walk out of the theatre, feeling that they had done their bit for the country.

The hero is saved, the heroine is reunited with him. And the terrorist becomes 'human'. Everyone goes home happy with AR Rahman's scintillating score still resonating in their ears.

At the time, Mani Ratnam had planned to shoot Roja in Kashmir but the highly volatile situation in the territory forced him to be content with other destinations like Manali, Himachal Pradesh, Ooty and Coonoor.

Tracing the story of a 'pattikaadu' woman Roja (Madhubala) from Tamil Nadu, who marries Rishi (Arvind Swamy), a cryptologist, and fights a tenacious battle to rescue him from a separatist group, Roja was ambitious in scale.

Like his earlier film Mouna Raagam which was about a woman dropped in unfamiliar surroundings and in a marriage she doesn't want, Roja, too, attempted to tell the story from the eyes of its heroine. This explains why the film was named after her character rather the hero, who is held hostage and must fight his way out.

Viewed 25 years later, the romance between Rishi and Roja, which seemed divine and worthy of emulation in those days, does appear dated. The urban Rishi's insistence on marrying an "innocent" woman from a village, for instance, is inexplicable - especially when he takes potshots at her ignorance and naivete time and again.

The chemistry between the two actors, the suave Arvind Swamy and the earthy Madhubala, however, made these scenes work - and who can remain immune to AR Rahman's wonderful songs? As Rishi and Roja romance between the sheets to a gorgeous composition like Puthu Vellaimazhai, you'd need a heart of stone not to be swept away.

Roja also holds the distinction of being among the few Tamil films which have had a hero who is a few shades fairer than the heroine.

As the film progresses, however, it becomes more about Rishi and less about Roja. Just as their nascent marriage, which began on the wrong note, starts to blossom, Rishi is taken hostage by a separatist group that demands the release of one of their men in exchange of the former's freedom.

From then on, even as we're shown Roja battling on the sidelines, pleading with authorities to enable the release of her husband, she essentially becomes an idea - one that keeps Rishi alive and fighting.

It was by making the audience invest their emotions in this couple thrown into a kind of violence that they've only read about in the newspapers that Mani Ratnam succeeded in bringing home the Kashmir conflict.

Even now, Tamil films have not engaged meaningfully with the subject of terrorism, beyond a strong dose of sledgehammer nationalism which marks out Pakistan as the enemy country and shows a few bearded 'misguided' men operating at its instigation.

Action thrillers like Vallarasu, Unnai Pol Oruvan, Payanam, Thuppaki and so on, for instance, do not delve much into the politics behind incidences of terrorism and are quite content with simplistic black and white depictions. When it comes to landscape, they've chosen to situate the violence in societies and territories that would be immediately relatable to the audience, as reverberations of what happens at the borders, rather than take the camera to the conflict zone.

The army is usually depicted with an uncritical eye; they are the good guys who lay down their lives and all the violence is only shown from the perspective of the heroes in uniform, not the people who live in these conflict zones. If military atrocities at all come into the picture, it is the enemy country which indulges in brutal acts - as in the 2016 film Wagah.

To be fair, it isn't only Tamil cinema that is guilty of this. Hollywood films like American Sniper, for example, are unapologetic in adopting a jingoistic tone when narrating war stories.

Roja, too, was unquestioning in its depiction of the Indian state and the status of Kashmir. So much so that by the end of the film, Liaqat (Pankaj Kapoor), the separatist fighting for Kashmir's azaadi lets Rishi go with the line, 'You've made a human being out of a terrorist!' - the choice of words betray the lack of willingness to understand the complexity of the Kashmir issue, turning the narrative into a Good Vs Evil battle instead.

Interestingly, it's Mani Ratnam's Dil Se, released in Tamil as Uyire in 1998, which ventured into showing the other perspective, making a reference to Kunan Poshpora where the Indian army has been accused of mass gangrape.

25 years later, the politics in Roja, a film which caught the imagination of the audience in those days and became a massive hit, appears to be half-baked and populist. But seeing how little we've come since then in understanding ideas of nationalism/patriotism as a society and consequently their depiction in cinema, the lack of layers is still forgivable in a film that came out more than two decades ago.

However, in the present day political climate when 'Go to Pakistan!' has become a refrain for self-proclaimed nationalists to beat down criticism, we're only seeing more and more films reject nuance and play to the gallery instead. In Mani Ratnam's Kaatru Veliyidai, for instance, there is a shot of the Pakistani flag crashing down as Air Force officer VC (Karthi) and his boys make their escape from a Pakistani prison. That's the kind of depiction we're meant to applaud.

25 years since Roja - at a time when we're required to stand up for the national anthem in the theatre more out of fear than respect - this kind of pop patriotism rankles.The man who put out the burning flames, Arvind Swamy, has evolved from playing the charming hero to a badass villain, but the brand of patriotism he sold to us on celluloid remains unchanged. And sadly, it looks like it's here to stay till the cows come home.