It was complete pandemonium in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. Speaker Kodela Siva Prasad Rao sat flummoxed in his seat, as MLAs of the opposition party flooded the well of the House.
Documents were torn and thrown at the speaker, even as slogans were raised incessantly. Leading from the front was YSRC's Nagari MLA Roja. The MLA referred to as ‘Motor Mouth MLA’ by her detractors stood out in a neatly plaited green saree, amidst the waves of men in white.
On that March afternoon of 2015, party chief Jagan Mohan Reddy remained in his seat watching impassively, as RK Roja, a first time legislator, pointed directly at an MLA of the ruling party and then lifted up her foot, as if suggesting that she’d slap him with her footwear.
She was not even a year old in the Assembly.
From allegedly passing comments like "It is not enough to develop your body, you should mature mentally!” to insulting an MLA by offering her saree, Roja could not be quelled.
Once outside the Assembly, the MLA offered this justification for her actions, "When Chandrababu Naidu was speaking in the Assembly; he claimed that India will develop more than China because of him. When he said that, our party members laughed. How is he related to India? He is the Andhra CM. He asked us if we didn't understand the subject, or had some disease. He said he will provide 'treatment' for all of us. Are they not the real rowdies?"
She then declared, "They either have to rape me or kill me to shut me up. They don't have the guts to rape me."
Roja's insensitive comments caused uproar in Andhra Pradesh, among women and activists.
But then, her caustic tongue has unsettled even the most seasoned and abusive politicians in the last 13 years.
In December 2016, TDP leader Anam Vivekananda Reddy, famously said in an interview, "Roja, a jaggery mound of Chittoor — is a rusty old hag." He had recently defected from YSRC to the ruling Telugu Desam party and with disgust, he added, "Roja nee noru gabbu (Roja, your mouth is a sewer)."
But these insults did little to change the MLA's style of politics. In fact, by her own admission to The News Minute, she considers herself as the right arm of her party chief.
The damsel in distress
468 kilometers from Amravati, where politicians duck for cover from Roja's acid tongue, the whip has turned on her. The 44-year-old's features are schooled into a perfect display of fear, as she runs down a set of carpeted stairs. Behind her, a boy no older than seven, twirls his fake moustache and laughs derisively, imitating yesteryear Tamil movie villain M.N Nambiar.
In this role as the judge of Zee Tamil’s Junior Super Stars, a reality show for children, the MLA is almost unrecognisable. As part of the show, the judges go up on stage to showcase their acting prowess. And befittingly, the song to which Roja sways her hips, Aadamal Aadugiren (I dance without dancing) from Aayirathil Oruvan, belonged to J Jayalalithaa. Another woman politician who believed she was victimised by the country’s patriarchal politics.
Roja, who has acted in all four south Indian languages, is visibly panting, as she returns to her chair at the judge's panel after playing the damsel in distress.
"Do you know that when I entered films, I came with the decision that I will act in just one movie?” she laughs, flashing teeth stained by lipstick.
At 17, she was noticed by movie scouts who saw her photographs from a college event and approached her family.
“I was very reluctant but my father, who was a sound engineer for documentaries, insisted that I should give it a try. I am from a middle class family and my mother was a nurse. I did not think I would fit into the world of film and glamour," she explains.
However, despite her dusky complexion which is considered to be a disadvantage in cinema, Roja went on to star in over 100 films.
Her first movie Prema Tapassu with Rajendra Prasad in 1991, was an utter flop.
But a year later, Roja was back with Seetharatnman Gaari Abbayu, where she was cast opposite actor Vinod Kumar. In the film, one of her first scenes is of her dhavani falling off to expose her chest in a tight fitting blouse as soon as she sees Vinod Kumar. A moment later, the half-sarees of her friends fall off, too. The male gaze couldn’t get any more obvious.
The same year, Roja ventured into Tamil films with Chembaruthi, cast opposite Prashanth. Throughout the movie, she plays the role of a woman who has no free will. Her actions are moulded by the desires of her lover or her brother. The film was a hit and remade in Hindi as Aao Pyar Karen but the reason it remains memorable for the actor is because she met her husband on the sets of this movie.
RK Selvamani, Roja's husband and father of her two children, was the man who directed Chemburathi.
"He didn't know Telugu and I didn't know Tamil," Roja laughs. "He had a soft corner for me because I was really silent…shy...even docile maybe. I wouldn't even raise my voice and talk to anybody," she adds.
The dramatic transformation
But there was no trace of this docility when Roja took on Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu in the Assembly during the infamous ‘call money’ controversy in December 2015.
'Call money' is a mode of private lending where a loan is made available instantly, and at the borrower's doorstep. But the flipside is that exorbitant rates of interest are charged and the lender can demand repayment any time.
In this case, a woman had filed a complaint to the Vijayawada Commissioner that loan sharks were demanding sex from her as she was unable to pay her dues. The complainant had borrowed money from a Vijayawada trust for her daughter's education. To make matters worse, the woman alleged that even her daughter had been pushed by the finance mafia into “high class” sex work.
A task force was formed and the team found that the racket had a turnover of Rs.600 crore a year. As the crackdown began, it became evident that the mafia had strong political connections.
On December 17, the call money racket shook the State Assembly. YSRC members alleged that the operators had the support of Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and the TDP leadership. The TDP members countered the claim and said that a majority of those arrested so far were affiliated to the opposition.
Leading the charge for the opposition was Jagan Mohan Reddy, who unleashed Roja upon the TDP. The Chief Minister promised strict action against the leaders named in the scam and revealed that politicians across the spectrum had been named in the police complaints.
But his voice was drowned by Roja's harsh screams from the well of the House. She was suspended from the Assembly for a year by the Speaker for obstructing the proceedings of the House and for allegedly making derogatory remarks against the CM.
The Speaker's action was upheld by the Privileges Committee and also the Ethics Committee of the Assembly. Roja became the first MLA to be suspended for an entire year in Andhra Pradesh.
Roja, however, has on various occasions maintained that she never sought to abuse the Chief Minister. The term 'Ca.Ma' CM which got her into trouble, she claims, was an abbreviation for call money. Except, it sounds phonetically similar to a word that means lust.
When asked about the incident, Roja bristles. She claims that the tapes were doctored and that someone had “dubbed” statements that she’d never made. She alleges that she was targeted because the TDP is jealous of her stardom.
So how did Roja, the docile person on and off screen become the politician with a caustic tongue?
She has a simple explanation.
"I work for the people of Andhra Pradesh and sometimes, if that means I have to give back as good as I get, I am capable of it. If they say things to me I have to respond. I had to become like this."
But even suspension could not keep her out of the limelight. In February this year, Roja was prevented from taking part in the National Women’s Parliament (NWP) in Vijayawada.
“I was detained for hours without even a warrant. They did not want me to raise important women’s issues there and question the government’s false promises of development,” she says vehemently. “Vijayawada, where Chandrababu Naidu stays, has seen a rampant increase in crime against women. It was an attempt to muzzle me,” she adds.
The MLA claims that she was invited by the Speaker, who is also the Chairman of the NWP.
In a viral video, Roja can be seen inside a car, claiming that she was made to wait for hours and leveling allegations against the ruling government.
When asked about the animosity between her and Chandrababu Naidu, she looks confused. "This is political rivalry. He may see me as his villain now but back in 1999 he was the one who paved my way into politics. I won't forget that," she says.
Naidu’s own Frankenstein
It’s true. In 1999, TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu invited her to express support for them in public rallies. Roja was at the peak of career. In the Telugu industry, she had acted with all the big names - Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and Balakrishna – and delivered huge hits like Annamayya.
In Tamil too, she was equally popular, having been cast opposite superstar Rajinikanth in the mega-hit Veera.
"I campaigned for 27 days for Chandrababu Naidu and when he told me I spoke well, it was such a big compliment," says Roja, with a wry smile. "I was very happy and in 2004, the unexpected happened. He asked my husband if I would contest in elections.”
After 10 years of courtship, in 2002, Roja had married Director Selvamani and a year later, they had their first child. She had stopped acting and was focusing on her family, when the offer came her way.
Roja was deeply inspired by her husband’s political leanings.
"He was a follower of Periyar’s ideology and believed that the oppressed must be helped and empowered,” she says. Periyar EV Ramaswamy was a Tamil social activist and politician who started the Self-Respect Movement and the Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944.
Till date, it is her husband’s political philosophies, Roja says, that impact her own thinking.
“Selva was the one who convinced me to contest and I thought why not. Life has always brought unexpected opportunities my way and I decided to make best use of it," she adds.
Roja was inducted into TDP as the President of the women's wing, a large role for someone new to politics. Her command over Telugu and ability to draw audiences helped the Chief Minister groom her into a firebrand. Her jibes against the Congress, got stronger by the day.
"Everyone used to tell me I spoke very well," says the actor. "In that election, TDP decided to give seats to more women and I was amongst the chosen few.”
But while Roja had spent the last decade increasing her stardom, the TDP saw itself drowning in an anti-incumbency wave. Roja lost her maiden poll but claims she was not deterred.
In 2009, however, TDP lost elections again and in August that year, the actor quit the party and joined the Congress.
But reports suggest that she was not given the importance that she sought in the party, especially after YS Rajasekhara Reddy's untimely death. She, however, began to inch closer to Jagan Mohan Reddy's camp and in 2011, shifted to YSR Congress.
By then the TDP had begun using a new sobriquet for her - 'iron leg'.
The ‘Iron leg’ of Andhra politics
“Roja is definitely an iron leg ('bad omen'). She had referred to YSR as a shaneswarudu (God of evil) when in TDP and after she joined Congress, she doomed him (YSR died in a chopper crash in 2009),” said AP minister Bojjala Gopalakrishna Reddy.
Roja laughs when asked about this: "They are coming up with these names because I left their party. How am I supposed to win an election if they don't give me money for campaigns? It was complete sabotage fueled by jealousy. They kept changing my constituency and purposely made me lose. I realised there was no prospect for growth and had to leave the party.”
In 2014, Roja stood from the Nagari constituency and the ‘iron leg’ emerged victorious. But YSRC was relegated to the opposition. "The TDP has lost its focus on development," she alleges.
"I have always been focused on women's issues and that is my main priority now.’
But this 'women's crusader' has, in the past, been accused of misogyny herself.
“I did not beat my husband and go to a police station like you. I did not sleep with all and sundry,” Roja had allegedly said about TDP MLA V Anitha.
Anita later filed a complaint against Roja for abusing a member of the Scheduled caste.
Roja, however, has a different explanation to offer. She claims that it was the TDP’s ruse to use someone from the SC community to try and control her.
Earlier this year, the Privileges Committee of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly even recommended that Roja be suspended again for a year for abusing a female member of the House.
But as it turns out, suspensions do little to stop her. In March, she returned to the Assembly in time for the Budget session and has been irrepressible since. Her latest target is Chandrababu Naidu’s grandson Devansh.
When asked about the water leak in the chamber of YSRC chief Jagan Mohan Reddy in the Assembly at Velagapudi, pat came the response: “TDP leaders are blaming Jagan for every issue of AP. It wouldn't be a surprise if they accuse Jagan if Devansh criestomorrow. They may say that the CM’s grandson cried only because Jagan had pinched him.”
The way ahead
“I don’t have any ambitions of becoming an MP or going and sitting in Delhi,” she asserts. “I want to be in touch with my people and their problems all the time."
Talking to Roja is like conversing with two different people – the politician and the performer.
So as a woman politician, what was her opinion of movie industries that purely use women as eye candy?
Roja takes a few seconds to answer but the reply is straightforward: "This is a glamour industry. You have to ensure you fit the role the script demands. Heroes like Nagarjuna, Chiranjeevi and Venkatesh have all the power. The just use women to up the glamour quotient in their films.”
Will she ever get back to doing movies?
"I really don't have the time," she laughs. "I have a very successful show called Zabardast back in Andhra that I host. I do it because the craze that surrounds stardom is useful in politics, which is my first priority. The rest of my time, I like to spend with family," she smiles.
Then what is she doing here in Chennai, judging a show with no political overtones and meant for a Tamil audience?
The answer to this question comes from Roja the politician. "My constituency borders Thiruttani," she says, with a charming smile. "40% of the population there is Tamil and this way, I am constantly visible to them.”