Roja – a dubbed version of the Tamil original – was Mani Ratnam and A R Rahman’s ticket to national fame. They continued their partnership in Bombay, again originally a Tamil film, and it was a commercial hit. Buoyed by their success they finally ventured to make a Hindi movie, Dil Se, with the reigning badshah of romance (Shah Rukh Khan) that was dubbed in Tamil as ‘Uyire’. Dil Se was a commercial failure but it again won a lot of critical acclaim.
But the commercial commonalities of all these stories are easily identifiable and feel a bit like a set formula. Simplistically put the films ingredients include – melodious music (Rahman), scintillating cinematography (Santhosh Sivan and Rajiv Menon for Bombay), dialogues that sound like real conversations of people in everyday life and great casting of the lead pair.
So what’s the core story that defines these films together. The story lines are well-known to viewers so it doesn’t make much sense to belabor the point. One liner summaries should give us a general feel about them.
Roja – Set in Kashmir it is about a village girl’s naive quest to free her scientist husband.
Bombay – The city of dreams helps a village girl to marry her first love and it’s also about their quest to save their children during violent riots.
Dil Se – A village girl from the North East is victimized and becomes a terrorist to avenge the injustice meted to her community. She also falls in love with a radio journalist and the ‘doomed’ couple eventually die as they try to overcome the divide in their lives.
It is still worthwhile to summarize some of the salient features of these movies. The overarching formula mentioned above still need to be fine-tuned with nuances that helped people to connect with the story and make it a great success.
Roja (The Rose) – 1992 – Arvind Swami and Madhu
Arvind Swami became an instant hit as a chocolate boy hero in the Hindi belt catapulting the movie to be a great success. He was welcomed as a romantic lead with a frenzy that was seen for Fawad Khan during the recent times. Additionally the music score by A R Rahman in his debut film was a resounding success and is what is instantly recognized even today about the movie – ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ (Dil Hai Chotha Sa Choti Si Asha), Kadhal Rojaave (Roja Jaaneman) and Pudhu Vellai Mazhai (Yeh Haseen Waadiyan) all became instant hits.The cinematography was exceptional too – the splendour of the snow-clad mountains in Kashmir, the lovely picturization of Chinna Chinna Aasai at Hogenakkal Falls and Kutrallam made for memorable moments.
Roja’s efforts to free her husband are the natural instincts of a young girl in an unknown land with no inkling of the complex politics that embroiled the situation. Yet it struck an emotional chord with the masses and the ‘candy-floss’ climax won over popular support as it cleverly avoided the terrorist being released. A lot of jingoism and nationalism got associated with the story wherein at many moments Roja’s attitude has been narrow and insular with the sole objective of getting her husband rescued. There is a cutting question she poses when the initial demand of release of a terrorist is declined by the authorities – why is it possible to accede to such demands when the kith and kin of politicians are involved?
Despite dealing with a tragic topic the movie had many light moments – Arvind Swami’s engagement to Madhu is punctuated with rustic humour and Janakaraj plays a nice cameo as a local fortune-teller cum guide who assists Roja. Pankaj Kapoor is cast well as a terrorist with a humane touch and brings gravitas to the story that refuses to indulge in bombastic rhetoric about a convoluted issue.
Bombay (1995 – Arvind Swami and Manisha Koirala)
The movie falls into two neat halves. The first half is about romance in a small town and its happy ending. The second half of the movie deals with civil riots in gory detail and is punctuated with tragedy and human suffering. Arvind Swami , an aspiring journalist, returns to his home town in sleepy South. Having graduated recently he stands up to his father who is a traditional Hindu brahmin and wants him to return home. He refuses to be cowed down and plans to return to Bombay.
He happens to catch a glimpse of the heroine – Manisha Koirala and that sets up a typical ‘village romance’ fraught with its downturn in a traditional and patriarchal society. The hero literally chases his lady-love and even wears a ‘burkha’ to get to hold hands with her. Such stalking behavior that will be called to question in modern times was the only recourse available as the boys were not allowed to mingle with the girls.
Bombay is more welcoming and the young couple get all the freedom to live their dreams. However the simmering conflict suddenly explodes and their lives are changed forever. The movie asked some hard-hitting questions about the heady cocktail of ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ and it had to put up with a lot of criticism as well.
Dil Se (1998 – Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala)
This was transition to the big-stage, an original Hindi movie with the leading man in the Bollywood industry. A R Rahman showcased his Sufi chops and the music was possibly the best ever album for the duo.
Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) plays the role of an All India Radio programmer (the national broadcaster) who lands up in the North East to do a special series of program on the 50 years on Indian Independence from the British Raj. He ‘meets’ Manisha Koirala dead in the night on a deserted railway station that has been hit by a heavy thunderstorm. It makes for ‘instant love’ for him as he chases a disappearing train with a cuppa of Tea in hand for his lady-love.
What follows is a relentless chase of the mysterious lady across terrains – North East, Leh-Ladakh and Delhi. It goes beyond conventional stalking and he gets royally beaten up in the chase as well. He personifies the the seven stages of love as per Sufi tradition i.e. दिलकशी (Attraction), उन्स (Attachment), मोहब्बत (Love), अक़ीदत (Trust/Reverence), इबादत (Worship), जूनून (Madness) and मौत (Death). The song ‘Satrangi Re’ sung gloriously by Sonu Nigam and Kavita Krishnamurthy takes us through this game of love.
But the star-crossed lovers were never meant to find happiness as Manisha remains a mystery and seems to be hiding a terrible secret. The track changes midway when SRK gets engaged to a peppy young lady – role enacted by the ebullient Priety Zinta. The song ‘Jiya Jale’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar is absolute gem and the cameo played by octogenarian Zohra Sehgal is pure magic.
Manisha returns to SRK and seems to have a devious plan of action. SRK suspects her and is determined to get to the bottom of the affair. The dangerous twist – Manisha is a human bomb and a key member of a terror group that is planning to cause mayhem at the Republic Day Parade – to the story ends up destroying the lovers as they are not able to bridge the divide terrorism brings to their lives. It is a realistic narrative that didn’t resonate with the Indian audience – the climax seemed a downer to many where possibly it was expected to showcase the events at the stage of the Republic Day Parade instead of the abrupt end that is the outcome of the deadly final embrace of the lovers.
So the three tales have quite a common thread among them and continue to remain relevant in today’s troubled times as well.