Rewind: After 25 years, Roja still enthrals and inspires

It was the summer of 2000, with yours truly barely three-and-a-half years old, on a trip with family to Jim Corbett National Park, in our relatively new/old Omni. We had stockpiled on cassettes of recently released movies which included Josh, Kaho Na Pyaar Hai amongst others. It eventually turned out to be futile as the only songs we listened throughout the trip were of Roja, which turned out to be the only memory of the trip I have till now. The one aspect that has caught my attention that it was a full 8 years after the movie was released and yet how different and fresh it sounded every time we put it on repeat. Out of nostalgia, I listened to the album again a few months ago and immediately found myself transported back to Jim Corbett, entranced and then found myself karaoke-ing to every song, much to my roommate’s bemusement.

To give it context, let’s delve into its background. The year was 1991. The film, directed by Mani Ratnam, was being made on a shoestring budget with his understanding that the film would also be sold for less since it was not thought of as something that would work in the box office in the long run. This meant parting with longtime collaborator Ilaiyaraaja, with whom he also had some creative differences. He happened to come across a composer named A.R. Rahman at an awards function, who was a newcomer at that time and composed jingles for advertisements. Impressed with Rahman’s work, Ratnam invited him to work for his next film. Initially skeptical, Rahman eventually took up the offer due to Ratnam’s reputation of being a director with good music taste, thus deciding not to pursue education at the Berklee College of Music. The result is an album full of dreamy yet expansive, cinematic moments.

Writer’s note: As a non-Tamil speaker, even though I have recently listened to the original Tamil version and will be reviewing it along with the Hindi version (the one I had listened to for all my life) to try do justice to the work, if at any point, there is a slight bias towards the Hindi version, I apologize for that. Also with the recent events that had developed during Rahman’s concert ‘Netru-Indru-Naalai’ in London, it felt even more necessary to try to do justice.

Chinna Chinna Asai/Choti Si Asha introduced Minmini to the majority of the world who sang both the Tamil and Hindi versions. It is preceded by a small semi-instrumental with traditional horns and a sample of the song. It is lush, expansive with long, tribal-like instrumentals and backup vocals provided by Rahman itself. Here itself, one can hear the outside influences as seen from a Tamilian composers’ point of view. You can also notice the introduction of new orchestral melodies which, till then, were based on a few traditional Indian instruments. For this, chief lyricist Vairamuthu bagged the National Film Award for Best Lyrics, while Minmini won the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Female Playback. Rukkumani Rukkumani/Rukmani Rukmani, whose Tamil version was sung by S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and K.S. Chithra and whose Hindi version was sung by the now-comedic Baba Sehgal and Shweta Shetty, has musically untrained elderly singers providing it a sort of playfulness rarely heard nowadays. One can almost hear them wink and giggle as if they are being let in on a secret. The lyrics, depicting the events of a wedding night, may be construed by some as vulgar, by others as light-hearted and lively. The song has a loud thumping feel, using tribal drums which as a result became ingrained in pop culture.

As the movie moves into Kashmir, the music takes on a sinister tone, fraught with tension. This is accentuated by the pulsating synths and a persistent bassline on Kadhal Rojave/Roja Jaaneman. It explodes into brilliance and ascends into celestial-like melodies. Even when heard without any accompanying visuals, one can sense the yearning and longing in S.P.B’s voice and his eagerness to be reunited with his loved one. Similar is the case of Pudhu Vellai Mazhai/Yeh Haseen Waadiyaan, where the album reaches the absolute zenith in terms of compositional mastery. The album ends with the patriotic fanfare of Bharat Humko Jaan, which (re)introduced the film fraternity to the noted ghazal singer Hariharan. The song takes on a different meaning in Tamil with Thamizha Thamizha, also sung by Hariharan, which was originally a poem by Subramania Bharati and formed as a basis for a tune that Rahman created a long time back on the Kaveri River water dispute. It’s a cry for equality espoused in a call-to-arms style.

The soundtrack had changed the course of Tamil and Hindi music industry and introduced to the world the genius of a certain A.R. Rahman. However, the current pop music scenery would definitely not accept Roja with its dreamy and extravagant melodies and longish track lengths. Then again, most of the current music scenery wouldn’t have existed if it was not for Roja and Rahman. In a list compiled by the widely read Time magazine, the album was chosen as one of the top 10 soundtracks of all time. After 25 years, there remains a certain allure and charm to it and is still the perfect album for a trip up to the mountains or for drunken karaoke nights.