Friday April 24, 1998
Mani Rathnam's sweeping, poignant "Roja" revitalizes the mainstream commercial Indian movie in ways unexpected.
Indian audiences expect lots of escapism from their pictures, which generally means interminable genre melodramas periodically interrupted abruptly with gaudy musical interludes. Rathnam and his innovative composer, A.R. Rahman, retain the lengthy running time and the obligatory musical elements but integrate them with the story in the best Hollywood tradition.
Rathnam then dares to inject the topical issue of Kashmiri terrorism in a film replete with song and dance. Indeed, his stunning way with synthesis suggests that today's Hollywood could learn a few lessons from him on how the original--as opposed to a stage adaptation like "Evita"--musical can work in the contemporary cinema.
This 1992 Tamil-language production was such a nationwide success that it was dubbed in Hindi the next year to become second only to "Jurassic Park" as India's top box-office hit.
"Roja" (The Rose) has a lovely lyrical quality echoed by Rahman's exquisite score as it expresses a longing for a timeless pastoral existence and, more specifically, for India to live in peace. Rathnam takes more than an hour to acquaint us with the lush Roja (Madhu), an 18-year-old country girl who lives in the Tamil region and who marries Rishi (Arvind Swamy), a tall, pleasant-looking government cryptographer.
Their joyous wedding celebration is a highlight of the film as the entire village breaks into song and dance, but it's unlike anything else you ever saw in an Indian movie. The entire sequence, which has a strong folkloric quality, could have been directed by Vincente Minnelli and choreographed by Bob Fosse.
Just as Rahman's score retains a traditional Indian flavor yet sounds contemporary and international, the dancing has its familiar native elements but is blended with wit and charm into smart, crisp Broadway/Hollywood-style moves; there is even an amusing chorus of sari-wearing grandmothers who know how to shoot out a hip like Shirley MacLaine. Yet the impact of this interlude is not of silly, improbable show-biz high jinks but a lovely reverie set in an Indian village.
This idyllic, tranquil rural existence, so beguilingly established, sets up the young couple's trip to Kashmir, heavily guarded by the Indian military, where Rishi has an assignment--and where he is kidnapped by Kashmiri terrorists. Will Roja ever see him again? Rathnam makes this a matter of more sustained suspense than you could think possible for a picture with a 137-minute running time.
Roja, 1998. Unrated. (The Rose)Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times