30 years of Roja, the movie that gave us the musical marvel of AR Rahman

Rahman’s biggest achievement is the fact that in a very diverse country like India, his music has been widely accepted across geographies, writes the author.
Collage of a scene from Tamil movie Roja and music composer AR Rahman
Collage of a scene from Tamil movie Roja and music composer AR Rahman
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Mani Ratnam’s super hit film Roja was released on August 15, 30 years ago. When we saw the film, we understood why the makers opted for a Saturday instead of the customary Friday release for new films. The film had a subtext of patriotism and therefore it was a good marketing idea to release it on Independence Day when the air in the country is filled with patriotic fervour. Talking of marketing, no one realised back then that the film would give birth to a global homegrown brand called AR Rahman.

Roja was Mani’s eleventh film as a director and by then he had already become a cult figure in Tamil cinema with back-to-back hits. Yet, Roja had a few firsts to its credit. It was the first time that Mani used a political theme as a backdrop to tell a story of human relationships – a template he would frequently use in his later films, though with mixed success. Roja was also Mani’s first ‘pan-Indian’ film, making him famous outside south India.

But above all this, Roja was the first Mani Ratnam film that didn’t have Ilaiyaraaja as the music composer. Right from his first film Pallavi Anu Pallavi till Roja, Mani had collaborated with Raaja and their combination had worked like magic, whether it was for the songs or the background score. So, for Raaja’s fans – and there were many – it couldn’t get more blasphemous than this.

A professional misunderstanding between Raaja and director K Balachander, whose Kavithalayaa Productions was producing Roja, meant that Mani had to look out for a new music composer. In came Dileep, a 25-year-old rookie who was doing jingles for ads, who would later come to be known as AR Rahman. Remember the ad for Leo Coffee that featured another youngster as the tie-clad husband? So, Leo Coffee has the distinction of bringing to the fore two celebrities – Rahman and Arvind Swami.

When I walked out of the theatre after watching Roja, I was disappointed. Many of my ilk shared the same feeling. We felt that the film was good but not as great as Mani’s earlier films, which were rooted in realism with no melodrama. Roja, we felt, had an overdose of melodrama. In the absence of social media to put out our views, we just kept discussing endlessly among ourselves about how Mani had lost the plot. But in the theatre hall, when the hero Arvind Swami unites with his newlywed wife Roja (Madhoo) at the end, there was a huge roar of applause. So, the film had worked at the box-office. Dubbed versions also became a huge success countrywide.

Only after a few days did we realise that Roja was not that bad after all. It dawned upon ardent fans of Ilaiyaraaja like us that the main reason we weren’t being able to appreciate it was that a film by Mani Ratnam did not have Ilaiyaraaja’s music. Through the 80’s and till Roja in 1992, Raaja lorded over the music space in Tamil or rather the whole of south Indian cinema. Directors waited eternally to get his nod to compose the music for their film. And he never disappointed. Just like an assembly line churning out finished products with consistent quality, Raaja churned out hit songs and background scores, and that too quickly. So, the generation that grew up mainly with Raaja’s music and which believed that his score in Mani’s earlier films played a huge part in their success couldn’t accept that Mani went with someone else.

From Roja, onwards and upwards

Nevertheless, with the songs in Roja, it was obvious that we were hearing a type of sound not heard before in film music. ‘Chinna chinna aasai’, ‘Kadhal rojave’ and ‘Rukmini, Rukmini’ grew on you, and went on to become memorable hits. Surprisingly, there were new names in the singer credits too. In the theatre, when heard along with Mani’s visuals, the songs were simply breath-taking. And it was only after repeat viewings that one came out of denial and accepted that Mani had made yet another good film.

Accepting Rahman though was still far away. After Roja, Rahman continued to give super-duper hit songs in films like Pudhiya Mugam, Gentleman, Kizhakku Seemaiyile, Duet, etc. Yet one felt that there was a repetitive aspect to his melodies. The same sounds that were different now felt familiar and predictable. Unlike Raaja, his folk-based songs sounded too contemporary. For example, in a completely village-based film like Bharathiraaja’s Karuthamma, Rahman’s songs were no doubt great but the soul of the rural setting was missing. Critics attributed this to Rahman’s excessive dependence on synthesisers and music programming rather than on live instruments.

All these though didn’t stop Rahman from becoming the most sought after music director in the late 90’s and the first decade of this millennium. Youngsters lapped up his music and he became their idol. There were a few reasons for his quick ascent. Rahman came with a very good sense of melody. Basically, his tunes were simple and pleasing to the ears. He had a good grip on technology and used it to the hilt to get the best results. His sound quality was impeccable. He would let the artists improvise multiple times, picking and choosing the best version for the final edit.

Rahman brought himself up to speed on all types of music from Carnatic to Hindustani to Western classical to Sufi, which helped improve his range. The other thing about Rahman’s songs is that most of them were a fusion of genres. He straddled multiple forms of music in a single song thereby creating his own syntax. Even when he was using Carnatic ragas in his songs, he mixed them up. And it all seemed very organic. For a composer who came into the limelight on an Independence Day with Roja, it was only befitting that his non-film album Vande Mataram, released in 1997 to coincide with the golden jubilee of our independence, took his name and music to the nook and corner of the country.

It also helped that a few directors who had an axe to grind with Raaja discovered in Rahman a worthy alternative and started working with him. Lyricist Vairamuthu (who has been accused of sexual harassment by various women), who had split with Raaja by 1986, also found a way to be in the reckoning by collaborating with Rahman in the 90’s. Newcomers and talented filmmakers of the likes of Shankar started working with Rahman. His innate talent combined with all these reasons propelled him to the top rather quickly.

It was only a question of time, therefore, for Rahman’s music to display variety and versatility. And it was time for even Raaja’s hardcore fan base to come around and start accepting Rahman as the next thing in film music. The fact that Rahman had worked with Raaja in his formative years and was a key musician helped in this realisation. Just like the transition we saw of MSV to Raaja, we were witnessing the next transition from Raaja to Rahman. Raaja vs Rahman soon became Raaja and Rahman for many of us.

Chasing bigger dreams

When Rahman started composing for Hindi films, which have different sensibilities compared to Tamil, we could see a completely different musician. In films like Dil Se and Lagaan, his music left everyone spellbound. In my book, Lagaan is a turning point in Rahman’s discography. It is a well-known fact that it is difficult to break the Bollywood barrier for someone from the south, that too in music. Rahman managed to accomplish that. Soon, producers and directors were frequently flying to Chennai to sign the ‘Mozart of Madras’, as Rahman was called by then.

As a matter of fact, at one point in time, his scores for Hindi films were far superior to the ones in Tamil. His original scores for films like Rang De Basanti, Jodhaa Akbar and later Tamasha were pathbreaking. One realised that Rahman was chasing bigger dreams than being confined to just composing music for Indian films in general and Tamil films in particular. Slumdog Millionaire and the Oscars beckoned. Though many felt that Rahman had done better work in many other Indian films, becoming the first Indian to win the Oscars for music was a laudable feat.

Rahman’s biggest achievement in my opinion is the fact that in a very diverse country like India, his music has been widely accepted across geographies. No other music composer has achieved this feat before and after. He also introduced many new voices, going against the grain of sticking to a few established singers. KM Music Conservatory, the music school he established in Chennai, carries on the tradition of producing fresh musical talent.

Today, Rahman may not be ruling the musical waves as he was 10-20years ago. But he is still sought after for projects where filmmakers are looking for something special. His work on director Parthiban’s experimental single-shot non-linear film Iravin Nizhal had critics acknowledging that the background score was a huge value-add to the film. One of the most eagerly awaited films this year, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan, has Rahman composing the score.

Above all, more than a globally renowned music composer, Rahman is today one of the most successful brands to have come out of India. In this day and age, while achieving quick success is possible, sustaining leadership position, that too for 30 years, is not easy. Rahman has managed to do just that while continuing to be grounded and a perfect ambassador for Tamil cinema.

Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business and films.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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