Roja (1992)

Roja

Mani Ratnam’s 1992 film Roja is the first of his so-called ‘terrorist-trilogy’; three films with a romance set against a political background of terrorist activity. Here he takes us to Kashmir, where the Tamil-speaking Roja struggles to plead her cause when her husband is kidnapped by Kashmiri separatists. This is a film primarily about the relationship between Roja and her husband but Mani Ratnam adds in a generous and slightly overdone slice of patriotism as well as providing some insight into the situation in Kashmir at the time. Most interestingly while depriving the Tamil-speaking Roja of a voice in Hindi-speaking Kashmir, the film gives the terrorists an opportunity to explain their thinking and the rationale behind their campaign. In addition to the stunning scenery and compelling story, Roja was the first film featuring a soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and it’s still ranks up there as one of his best. No wonder then that Roja won awards both nationally and internationally, and is still considered a classic today.

The opening credits roll over the sound of gunfire, helicopters and conflict, and the film starts with a bang as terrorist Wasim Khan (Shiva Rindani) is captured by the army in Kashmir. But the action quickly moves to a village near Tirunelveli, introducing Roja (Madhubala) in the beautiful song Chinna Chinna Aasai. It’s an effective contrast between the two worlds, and emphasises how easy it is to forget the violence in the north as we get pulled into the lives of the peaceful villagers in Tamil Nadu.

Cryptologist Rishi Kumar (Arvind Swamy) has come to the village with his mother (Sathyapriya) to meet his fiancée Shenbagam (Vaishnavi). He is first spotted by Roja and her younger sister who are favourably impressed with the sophisticated urbanite Rishi, but Shenbagam isn’t as smitten. She’s already in love with a local boy and persuades Rishi to reject the match – after which he tells Shenbagam’s family that he will marry Roja instead. Since Roja doesn’t know anything about her sister’s true feelings, she is horrified and angered by what she sees as a rejection of Shenbagam. It does seem surprising that Roja isn’t aware of her sister’s secret romance since otherwise they seem to have a good relationship, but perhaps Shenbagam is just very good at keeping secrets. She’s definitely champion of getting her own way, as in the end Roja has no say in the matter and she ends up getting married to Rishi.

Mani Ratnam captures the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu by involving the entire village in the vetting of the bridegroom and subsequent betrothal ceremony. No question is too personal and no subject off limits for the gaggle of aunties and uncles interrogating Rishi when he arrives, and to be fair he deals with their questioning well. Later, the gregarious group of aunties act almost like a Greek chorus as they chaperone Shenbagam and Rishi during their ‘private’ conversation and I love that Mani Ratnam involves them in the entire process, even in this song to celebrate the wedding and first night.

After moving to the city, Roja discovers the truth behind Rishi’s change of mind and her initial anger develops into an appreciation of his good qualities. This understanding deepens into romance, so when Rishi is sent to Kashmir for work, Roja insists on accompanying him rather than wait at home. She doesn’t seem to know much about the political situation in Kashmir, which is shown by her naïve questions to Rishi on their arrival. I find this lack of awareness interesting, and I wonder if this regional isolation can still exist to-day in the age of 24/7 news, Smartphones and the internet? I can’t decide if Mani Ratnam is trying to educate the rest of India about the Kashmir situation with these dialogues, or simply to show how much faith and trust Roja has in her husband, to blindly follow him without any idea of where she is going to end up. Probably both!

Once in Kashmir, the relationship between Roja and Rishi continues to bloom. There is excellent chemistry between Arvind Swamy and Madhubala and the developing romance is hot enough to melt the snow. Mani Ratnam cleverly uses teasing interactions between the two to deepen their relationship and show their obvious enjoyment in each other. But just as everything seems to be falling into place, Rishi is abducted by a group of masked men in a minivan. Roja immediately chases after the van, and it’s only when the van is long out of sight that she falls to her knees – even then, it’s more from disbelief at the situation rather than a gesture of despair. Roja is a woman of action and she’s not going to let the terrorists get away with their abduction.

While Rishi is held by the terrorists, Roja is determined to fight for his freedom, but she immediately runs into difficulties as she doesn’t speak or understand the language. As with Divya’s character in Mouna Ragam, she is also isolated by being so far away from home and familiar surroundings, however Roja has something to fight for and a reason to make herself heard. Eventually she is directed to Colonel Rayappa (Nasser) who is in charge of the search and who handily also speaks rudimentary Tamil. While Roja wants her husband home at any cost, Colonel Rayappa is more aware of the political realities of the situation and exactly what the terrorists demands to free Wasim Khan mean. The political discussions here are excellent, with Roja passionately arguing that the army has a duty to her husband as Rayappa tries to make her understand that the government will not willingly release a known murderer.

Meanwhile, Rishi tries to engage the terrorists by drawing their leader Liaqat (Pankaj Kapur) into conversation. Again, the politics of Kashmir are brought into the dialogues as Liaqat explains the separatists fight for freedom and independence, all of which makes little sense to the staunchly patriotic Rishi. Some of Rishi’s decisions seem quite extreme, such as when he demonstrates his patriotism in a situation where he knows it will only lead to a severe beating, or perhaps even death. Although, since he passionately opposes the release of Wasim Khan, perhaps that is actually part of his intention, but it’s not at all clear. Rather, for much of his imprisonment, the politics take second place as Rishi stares out of his barred window thinking about his wife.

Madhubala is outstanding here and her drive to find her husband along with the passion in their relationship come through very clearly. Her transition from rebellious village girl to determined wife is beautifully done, and she manages to show her character’s resilience tempered with despair exceptionally well. Arvind Swamy is just as good, aside from the brief forays into patriotism where the dialogue and actions do seem rather forced. Best of all are his interactions with Liaqat where the dialogues allow an exploration of the politics surrounding separatist violence in Kashmir. This theme is one that Mani Ratnam expands on much more in his later film Dil Se, but the seeds are sown here with at least glimpses of the separatists’ point of view. Liaqat too is a more sympathetic character than might be expected, although he’s marked as a ’bad guy’ by a rather large mole on his nose, which does at least make him easily identifiable when the terrorists are masked.

Roja has a perfect mix of engaging story, stunning scenery and beautiful music that all combine to produce a classic film. The actors are all excellent throughout and bring their characters realistically to life. Madhubala in particular shines as the central character and provides a strong focus to the story, while the mix of romance, action, suspense and politics is well judged to keep that focus clear.

Mani Ratnam always excels when he films relationships, but here he adds a wider viewpoint as the social problems within Kashmir intrude upon Rishi and Roja’s personal life. The juxtaposition of Roja fighting to reunite with her husband with Rishi’s attempts to persuade the terrorists to embrace a united India acts to bring the personal and the social aspects together and there is effective contrast between Roja’s love for Rishi, and Rishi’s patriotic belief in his country. That doesn’t mean that Rishi doesn’t love Roja, but his fight is to turn the terrorists from their course, while Roja is single-minded in her quest to find her husband. A.R. Rahman’s music is the icing on an already rich cake while Santosh Sivan impresses with his excellent camerawork. I love this film and each time I watch I am amazed all over again by the richness and depth of both the story and the dialogues. Simply brilliant! 5 stars.

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Iruvar (1997)

Iruvar

Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar is essentially a story about friendship but it manages to encompass cinema, politics and plenty of associated drama along the way.  From their first meeting in the film industry, through their membership in the same political party until Anandan and Tamilchelvam end up as rivals for the position of chief minister, the friendship between the two endures the many challenges they face.   Despite the disclaimer at the start that the film is a work of fiction, even a cursory glance at the biography of Tamil film legend M. G. Ramachandran shows many parallels between his life and that of the character Anandan (Mohanlal).  It’s also apparent that MGR’s real life political rival, M. Karunanidhi is the character Tamilchelvam, portrayed by Prakash Raj, while other counterparts from the same era are also featured in the film. Although I don’t know enough about the lives of M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi to comment on how accurately the two characters do resemble their real life counterparts, not knowing the true events isn’t a hindrance to enjoying the film.  It’s an exceptionally well told story and features not only brilliant performances from the two leads Mohanlal and Prakash Raj but also features an excellent début from Aishwarya Rai.

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The film opens with the young Anandan (Mohanlal) looking for acting work and finally achieving his dream of becoming a film hero assisted by his friend Tamilchelvam (Prakash Raj).  The initial meeting of the two men typifies their characters.  Anandan doesn’t always seem to understand or agree with everything the poet Tamilchelvam says but he is impressed by the man’s obvious sincerity and self-belief, and asks Tamilchelvam to write his dialogues for him.  Anandan is a simplistic man who just wants a good paying job so that he can look after his mother, while Tamilchelvam is more idealistic and wants to use his words to change the world.

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As Anandan’s star is rising in the film industry, Tamilchelvam continues to work as a screenwriter although he also becomes active in a Dravidian social party led by Velu Annachi (Nasser).  At the same time the two friends get married although Anandan is tricked by his mother into tying the knot with a local girl Pushpa (Aishwarya Rai) while Tamilchelvam marries Maragatham (Revathy), a girl approved for him by his political leader.  Despite their inauspicious beginnings, Anandan rapidly falls in love with Pushpa’s lively innocence and charm, although he leaves her with his mother when he goes back to work.  Tamilchelvam on the other hand spouts speeches about equality in marriage on his wedding night while Maragatham is more traditional and superstitious which doesn’t bode well for their future together.

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This song intersperses a romantic film song featuring Madhoo in a guest appearance with scenes from Anandan’s marriage presumably suggesting that the real-life relationship was as idyllic as the fairy-tale filmi romance.

As their careers progress, Anandan becomes a star, able to draw crowds although he doesn’t appreciate his popularity until it is forcibly shown to him by Tamilchelvam.  This is demonstrated in an excellent scene where Tamilchelvam takes Anandan up onto the roof to show him the hundreds of people waiting for a chance to catch a glimpse of the film star.  Anandan’s slow recognition of his fame is perfectly played by Mohanlal, but once he has recognised the fact, he knows how to work his popularity and make the most of it.  Anandan also joins Tamilchelvam’s political party, although he is looked on with suspicion by the other party members who feel that Anandan is using the party to further his film career, while Anandan feels that his film fame is being exploited by the party to pull in more voters.

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The contrasts between the two men are expertly illustrated in their interactions with each other and with the other characters.  The more idealistic and driven Tamilchelvam prints pamphlets and makes long inspiring speeches at political rallies while Anandan just declares that he wants everyone to be happy.  After Anandan’s first wife dies he marries his co-star Ramani (Gautami) almost by chance.  Ramani turns up on Anandan’s doorstep in distress, fleeing from her abusive uncle manager (Ravi) and since Anandan doesn’t seem to have much else happening that week he decides to marry Ramani to keep her out of her uncle’s clutches.  In contrast, Tamilchelvam sees Senthamarai (Tabu) at a political demonstration and arranges for her to come to Chennai to be his mistress.  Tamilchelvam is proactive and driven, and plans his life to realise his ambitions while Anandan is more reactive and laid-back, seeming to fall into his success by chance, although helped by his natural charm and talent.

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Aishwarya Rai has a double role and appears again as Kalpana, a new actress who works with Anandan despite his initial reservations, due to her resemblance to his first wife.  It’s an impressive performance from Aishwarya who is feisty and assured in complete contrast to her role as Pushpa.  She also looks gorgeous and the songs featuring her and Mohanlal are some of the highpoints in the film.  Kalpana is apparently based on Jayalitha, although seemingly only on her acting career,since the character doesn’t have any political aspirations in the film, and has an early and off-screen exit.

Iruvar seems to deal lightly with Anandan, using Tamilchelvan more as a contrast with the actor, although both men are treated fairly without any particular bias for one side over the other.  It’s a very human look at politics and the realities of power as these men, with their great ideals and desires to change the fate of the common man, still end up with similar policies to the previous party. Despite their eventual opposition in the political arena, Anandan and Tamilchelvan seem to be able to maintain their respect for each other, even as they battle to keep power.  Their relationship is complex and often threatened by the actions and opinions of others but both characters keep true to their basic personality, which ensures the friendship appears realistic. Mohanlal is superb as Anandan using his facial expressions to wring every possible emotion out of every scene.  He is often understated and conveys his emotions very simply but with great effect.  Prakash Raj is just as good as Tamilchelvam and his evolution from passionate young activist to elder statesman is perfectly portrayed.  The two combine together to make every moment they are on screen absolute gold. Santosh Sivan’s excellent cinematography also helps the film stand out with good use of camera angles to capture the large party rally’s contrasted with the more intimate scenes.

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I read that there was opposition to the film’s release (as might be expected given the reputations of both MGR and Karunanidhi) and certainly Iruvar has suffered at the hands of the censors.  A number of apparently stirring political speeches are muted partway through by loud music, and judging by the sudden jumps in the screenplay, a few seem to have been cut altogether.  But the relationship between the two men still comes across clearly and Mani Ratnam has drawn every possible nuance of their association in exquisite detail.  The censorship is interesting given that at one point Anandan makes a film which apparently portrays Tamilchelvam’s party in a negative light.  Tamilchelvam’s response is one that I’m sure all film-makers and reasoning adults would like to hear from more governments, particularly considering the recent issues surrounding Vishwaroopam.

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The music and songs by A.R. Rahman are of a high quality and vary in style to illustrate the different cinematic eras encompassed by the film, although the time frame is never explicitly stated.  These range from the jazzy and more upbeat songs pictured on Kalpana to the more traditional and classically driven song Narumugayie.  Farah Khan was the choreographer which is probably another reason why the songs all work so well with all the dancers in sync.  This is probably one of my favourites as Aishwarya sparkles on the screen while Anandan and Ramani watch in the cinema. Anandan’s face as he realises Kalpana’s resemblance to his dead wife is a study in shock, horror and sheer disbelief while his wife is totally oblivious to his reaction.

Iruvar is a fascinating story about two very influential men, made even more absorbing by its basis on real people.  Although the censorship cuts do make some of the underlying details more difficult to follow, especially for those (like myself) who don’t know the true story, that doesn’t detract from the compelling nature of the relationship between these two giants of Tamil film and political history. Entertainment and education all in one – perfect! 4 ½ stars.

Howrah Bridge (1958)

Hurrah for Helen!

The only thing I knew about Howrah Bridge was that it featured Helen’s famous item number Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu, and that was the reason I picked it up in a collection of classic Black and White films. Although Helen’s appearance is a highlight, there is plenty more to enjoy, including great performances by Madhubala, Ashok Kumar and Om Prakash as well as some beautiful songs featuring Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi. The story moves along at a steady pace without any unnecessary diversions from the main plot and despite knowing ‘whodunit’ from the opening scenes there is still intrigue and anticipation as events don’t unfold quite as expected.

Howrah Bridge is an Indian take on film noir, although the story is perhaps not as dark and the characters less ambiguous than in the classic American films of the forties and fifties. However it follows the basic path of a crime drama with a leading lady of somewhat questionable background, and a villain who happily disposes of anyone who stands between him and his fortune. The lighting is generally subdued in film noir style and director Shakti Samanta makes excellent use of shadows to highlight the more dramatic moments in the film. While most of the action takes place in a number of seedy hotels and dimly lit streets in Calcutta, Howrah Bridge appears from time to time and looms effectively over the characters as well as providing the location for the climax chase.

The film starts with the theft of an heirloom from Prem Kumar’s family in Rangoon. It turns out that the jewel encrusted dragon mask has been stolen by eldest son Madan (Chaman Puri), who has taken it to Calcutta to sell to the villainous Mr Chang (Madan Puri). Mr Chang wants the dragon but doesn’t want to pay for it, so he arranges for his chief henchman Pyarelal (K.N. Singh) to dispose of Madan and steal the dragon. Hearing of his brother’s murder, Prem Kumar (Ashok Kumar) heads to Calcutta to try to recover his family heirloom and en route he meets up with Uncle Joe (Dhumal) and his beautiful niece Edna (Madhubala) who sings and dances in Joe’s hotel. Prem is dismissive of Edna and her dancing while she is piqued by his resistance to her charms which gives her at least one reason to pursue Prem when she meets him again in Calcutta.

Prem hooks up with Tangewala and old employee Shyamu (Om Prakash) and together they attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding Madan’s death and the disappearance of the dragon mask. This involves Prem assuming the name of Rakesh and following in his brother’s footsteps on the night of his murder while Shyamu uses the opportunity to get commissions from as many people as possible along the way. Added in to the mix of characters are Shyamu’s opium smoking nephew Bhiku who saw the murderers on Howrah Bridge, and his cheerful fiancée Chhamia who add some more conventional Bollywood drama to the story. I always love shots of newspapers and did pause to read the other headlines and the ads!

Madhubala plays the role of an Anglo-Indian, perhaps to explain her Western style clothing and account for her less than respectable position as a singer and dancer in her Uncle’s hotel. While she doesn’t do very much dancing, she is convincing as a singer doing her best to entertain the crowd and attract the attention of Prem. She looks beautiful in swishy skirts and Chinese tunics, and gives Edna charm and vulnerability despite her profession and unsavoury connections to the local criminals.

Some of the noir element creeps in here as Edna obviously knows about the various shady deals going on between Uncle Joe and Mr Chang. Her attempts to lure Prem to the hotel seem initially to be to expose him to some theft or extortion attempt perhaps in revenge for his previous treatment of her. Prem is also less than honest as he encourages Edna’s advances to learn more about the smuggling gang run by Mr Chang and Pyarelal. But that’s about it for any noir-ish character ambiguity and rather quickly a real and genuine attraction forms between the two. After a few cups of tea and a boat trip on the river (a Bollywood staple always guaranteed to result in romance) Edna confesses her love for Prem. While Prem does take a little longer to declare his love, the relationship feels warm and affectionate with excellent chemistry between the two actors.  Ashok Kumar is always a very competent actor and here he shows his romantic side while Madhubala looks gorgeous and seems to relish her role as Edna turns sleuth and starts to help Prem with his investigation.

The other characters all fit their parts well. Madan Puri’s Mr Chang is an interesting villain and somewhat different from the usual swaggering, self-confident bully seen in most Bollywood films. He has a limp and walks with a cane, demonstrates a number of affected mannerisms and speaks Hindi softly in a high-pitched voice with a touch of an accent to accentuate his Chinese origin. Chang demonstrates a cold and callous nature when he casually orders the deaths of various lackeys he feels may be a threat but becomes agitated and afraid when he knows that the cops are on his trail. It’s an excellent portrayal and provides a good contrast to K.N. Singh as Pyarelal who plays his role as a more conventional gangster very competently. The oriental touches suit the overall look of the film and of course Helen is perfect (and looks so very young and totally stunning too) as the wonderful Chin Chin Chu when she dances in Mr Chang’s hotel.

The music by O.P Nayyar fits the feel of the film perfectly and ranges from romantic duets to a very jaunty song Shyamu sings as he drives through Calcutta. Mehmood and his sister Minoo Mumtaz also pop up in a fun song at a wedding where Mehmood indulges in some excellent uncle dancing.

I really enjoyed Howrah Bridge and wasn’t surprised to find that it was directed by one of my favourite directors from this era. I liked the touches of film noir and the variation between light and shade in Chandu’s cinematography, although it’s possible some of the dim lighting may just be due to some deterioration in the film with age. Madhubala is always a pleasure to see in any film and she tends to steal the show whenever she appears. While Ashok Kumar is an actor I enjoy watching, he really does suit this type of role and I think this made me appreciate his performance rather more than usual. I was a little disappointed that despite secret doors and an intricate hiding place for his safe, Mr Chang didn’t have a suitably villainous lair, but the dimly lit room with its statues and heavy furniture was probably more in keeping with his character. It’s not the most exciting story but with excellent performances by some of the most renowned actors of the day, it’s a film worth watching for more than just Helen’s fab appearance. I give Howrah Bridge 4 stars.

Temple says:

I am a huge admirer of Ashok Kumar and have been gradually working my way through his filmography. Of course, Helen in any appearance also pushes a film up the to-be-watched pile. And I’d watch Madhubala if she was watching paint dry so I had high hopes when I first watched this. Sadly, the stars and the songs are really the only highlights for me. Ashok Kumar and Madhubala have a delightful chemistry and their scenes together crackle with life and are full of emotion. Unfortunately the story is not particularly interesting as it is obvious what will happen and who will do what. The pace is leisurely at best, and there is just not enough tension as things plod along so my attention kept skipping to what I knew was going to happen down the track. I found the villains characterisations particularly unimpressive and they lacked purpose – they were just generic bad guys and the addition of all the silly mannerisms did nothing to make Chang more credible or threatening. I do like a lot of the supporting cast, especially Om Prakash, but they generally aren’t doing enough in terms of the story to hold my interest. The songs are excellent, and Madhubala can certainly work the camera!

I watched the movie again last week and I found it quite dull. Unless Ashok or Madhubala was on screen, preferably both, or it was one of the fabulous songs I was itching for the fast forward. I am happy I have seen it as it is often referenced as a classic of its era, but it’s not a favourite for me and I think it is just an OK film. I would recommend or rewatch a number of other films released around the same time – for instance the thriller 12 O’Clock, Madhumati or for a change of pace, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi – over this. 3 stars.