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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Magalir Mattum (2017)

Bramma’s female centric film has a lot going for it, from the fantastic cast to the gentle mood of nostalgia and friendships that transcend time. But if you’re expecting a robust feminist statement, look elsewhere.

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Prabhavati (Jyothika) arrives on the scene like a hero. She rides a motorbike, wears jeans and t-shirts, calls all the shots with her film crew, abbreviates her elders’ names and speaks casually to all. This is how we know she is a modern, empowered woman. She has a close relationship with her soon to be mother-in-law Gomatha a.k.a Goms (Urvashi). Prabha comes to know that Goms had a couple of very close friends at school but when one of the girls was expelled, the trio went their separate ways and haven’t seen each other in close to 40 years. She decides to use Facebook to track down the ladies, and get the gang back together. Rani (Bhanupriya) is married to a chauvinistic politician (Nasser) and describes herself as a glorified servant, looking after the family in return for food, lodging, and a little bit of affection. Subbu (Saranya Ponavannan) is married to a drunk (Livingston) and stuck at home with his ailing mother, cleaning bedpans and listening to endless complaints. Prabha coerces them all into taking a road trip for just 3 days, time to be themselves.

Bramma uses flashbacks to the friends’ college days and the three young actresses who play Rani, Goma and Subbu are delightful. The dynamic between the women hasn’t really changed, even though their circumstances and lives have forced them into different shapes. They quickly fall back into Rani being the firecracker, Subbu being daring, and Gomathi being timid but refusing to be left out. The links between timelines serve to remind the ladies who they used to be as well as showing the audience.

Prabhavaty eggs them on, wanting these women to live for themselves and stop holding back, to have the freedom she has. She is effusively informal, persuasive, and persistent. I had a bit of a chuckle at her being “like a hero” as, like many male stars, she is only about 10 years younger than her screen mother. I like Jyothika and she looks great and delivers a well-modulated performance as part of the ensemble.

Prabha says “men aren’t the problem, the system is the problem” which neatly overlooks that “the system” is largely constructed and maintained by men for their own benefit. But baby steps. Mainstream Tamil films tend to congregate at the rapey and misogynistic end of the spectrum so this is quite a departure and I’m grateful to the heavy duty star cast for getting this off the ground. Maybe that is the real feminist statement – Jyothika’s continuing film career that doesn’t require her to play Suriya’s mother!

Rani (Bhanupriya) is living a life of determined fortitude. Through the flashbacks we see Rani was the leader, always getting in trouble and loving it. Her husband (Nasser) and son Karthik (Pavel Naganeethan) see her as a fixture, nothing you need to consult or consider. When their ward is designated a ladies ward, Karthik’s political ambition is thwarted and his dad cautions him against letting his wife step out of the house to run for office. They put Rani up as their candidate as they are so confident she will never have an opinion of her own. It’s such a sad waste of Rani’s sharp mind and good heart. She blossoms on the trip away, but is resigned to going back to the status quo. But does she? There are signs that at least her kids learn to see Rani as a human being, and she does take the wheel again. Bhanupriya is elegant but also mischievous and I really wanted to see more of Rani’s story.

Subbu (Saranya) projects a polished and controlled exterior. Her life behind the veneer of her beauty channel set is far less appealing. Her husband drinks constantly, and sprawls around the house singing old love songs until he bursts into pathetic tears in a never ending cycle. While Subbu is immaculate, the house is verging on squalid and there is no sign of pride in her surroundings. Subbu eventually reveals the reason for her disillusionment and anger, and there is nothing that can really fix that. It’s just heartbreak after heartbreak as the women reveal the decisions made for them and how they live with the aftermath. One of the highlights is a sequence where all the ladies tell their story of first love, with the results ranging from tragic to wryly amusing. Saranya plays Subbu as outspoken but with an increasingly warm twinkle in her eye as she casts off the grinding routine. She and Bhanupriya dance and joke around, fire up at each other and then gang up on Urvashi.

Gomatha’s life is not explored as thoroughly as the others, and Urvashi doesn’t have the same complexity of material to work with. Goma was less well off than her friends and struggled to keep up appearances at college. She was more conservative but would follow Rani and Subbu into the fire. She loves her son who works overseas, and worries about her life after the wedding when Prabha will go to live with him. The rapport between Prabha and Goms seems a little forced initially as Urvashi overreacts constantly, but she eases off once the ensemble is in place.

The supporting cast is excellent but the roles are sketches with minimal detail or depth. The men are either jerks or SNAGs, nothing much in between. I was delighted to see Maddy as Suri, Prabha’s fiancé. I quite like slightly unkempt and stubbly Maddy and liked that Suri wasn’t a manscaped picture of perfection. He’s a nice bloke who appreciates Prabhavati, and that is perfect. Nasser, (who Goms describes as looking like an eagle with diarrhoea), and Pavel Naganeethan are very effective at being horrid, and Livingston as Subbu’s husband Mangalamurthy is the kind of man who is nice but such a deadweight that he has the same effect as a total bastard.

Bramma gets a bit bogged down in a sub plot, and doesn’t really carry all the good ideas through into action. But the film looks great, the acting is generally top notch, and it’s a rarity to see female friendships celebrated on screen.

See this to enjoy the presence and fine acting of some wonderful female actors, and for the emotional resonance of their friendship and shared memories.

Simhadri

A story told in two parts, Simhadri is uneven. The things I love, I love. And the things I don’t, I really don’t. Rajamouli is always worth watching however, and it is kind of fun to look back at his earlier efforts even when the execution is a little laboured. Tarak is likeable enough, although his acting has improved greatly since 2003.

Simhadri (Tarak) is an orphan living in the household of Ram Bhupal Varma (Nasser) and his wife (Sangeetha). Simhadri is intensely loyal and has anger management issues, and his violence in service of the family is seen as endearing and almost a joke. Anyway, as they keep saying, it’s OK to kill or be killed if it is for the good of people. Tarak and Nasser have some nice badinage and their relationship does seem rock solid and a reasonable motivation for much of what follows. Simhadri is irresistible to women, especially Kasthuri (Ankitha), the daughter of the house. But he spends a lot of time and money with childlike Indu (Bhumika Chawla), and that becomes an issue when Kasthuri finds out. Apparently Simhadri’s style of beating people is medically identifiable and frequently lethal…Or at least that is what a visiting doctor from Kerala says happens when Singamalai beats someone up. But is Singamalai the same person as Simhadri? Why do truckloads of people with many and varied motivations turn up looking for him? Is he leading a double life?

Tarak gets one of the best hero entrance scenes ever, and a quite impractical yet very impressive weapon of choice. The action scenes are crunching and generally humourless, with varying degrees of gore. And he really is delightful in the songs where he is the bumblebee of dance – it seems he shouldn’t be able to move like that but look at him go!

M.M Keeravani’s soundtrack has a dreary orphan song, some cheesy duets, and offers Tarak a range of opportunities to bust a move. It even includes that romantic Indian classic – Cotton Eye Joe!

But Simhadri has to participate in comedy disease shenanigans, and wear some very unpleasant headbands not suited to the hamster-cheeked gent. The obligatory scenes paying homage to the senior NTR are a little overdone, as well as suffering from early 2000s technical limitations. Seeing the younger actors try to leverage their family name while appeasing the inherited fan base and also create their own image is quite interesting to me.

The relationship between Simhadri and Indu is troubling given her childlike mentality. The portrayal is a little flirtatious or at least uses filmi romance visuals which is creepy. Even Simhadri’s family immediately assume she is a prostitute, despite her little girl braids and outfits. And I was appalled by her horrible neighbours. Orphanism isn’t contagious! But despite all this rich material, that renowned wet dishrag of an actress Bhumika uses at most two three facial expressions. The relationship between Simhadri and Kasturi is equally perplexing, although for different reasons. Apparently the way to spark romance is to either scare a man or be scared in front of him. So dropping an ant down your bra and all the following shrieking and jiggling makes perfect sense then. I was kind of glad Ankitha is terrible in this as it would have been sad seeing a good actress enduring the stupidity of the script.

Despite his dubious interpretation of the female psyche, Rajamouli did win a few “you go girl!” points for casting Ramya Krishnan as an item girl.

I found it highly amusing that the song is pretty much along the theme of “do you want fries with that”. But seriously, I am so impressed she has managed such a long and varied career and has made some super films along the way.

The support cast is rich with talent and recognisable faces. Nasser is all reasonable and understanding until someone disagrees with him, then it is “my way or the highway”. He is a great foil for Tarak. Mukesh Rishi is vile and compelling as Bhai Sahib, the big bad gangster. Rahul Dev is slimy Nair, who sparks about an hour of graphic violence including rape and torturing children. Sharat Saxena is the ultimate useless policeman who abdicates all responsibility to the vigilantism of Simhadri. Bhanu Chander has a small but pivotal role that relies on him never making a sensible decision. All of these actors are good, but all their characters need at least one tight slap or maybe a whack with the fancy significant weapon. You know I am close to despair when I can say truthfully that Brahmi and his character is one of the highlights. I also liked Rallapalli and Ragini as Indu’s carers, and Hema as the cheeky maid and confidante to Kasturi.

While the pace is a bit draggy, Rajamouli shines in the action sequences where he uses creative visuals to heighten the drama. Simhadri leaps over the threshold and is then seen landing on the road on a motorcycle. When Simhadri takes on Nair’s gang the fight is intercut with a religious festival, reinforcing that he is doing godly work and getting the adrenaline flowing. The final fight scene has Tarak moving at normal speed but the rowdies in slomo, which was an effective treatment compared with just speeding it all up.

There are some issues with the story, but this is not one to overthink the plot. I mean I can think of several other and better ways to solve the old “bomb in the suitcase” problem…but who wants the sensible masala version?

See this for all the mass tricks, a hero on his way to becoming a genuine star, and a director who backs himself to be playful with the big ticket elements. 3 ½ stars!

Simhadri-last word