Mani Ratnam's Roja is peppered with bouncy AR Rahman tunes and begins as a sweet enough story about tenderness and understanding growing between partners in an arranged marriage. But these are digressions; the real themes of Roja are patriotism and the cost of dedication to a cause.
Roja's exploration of these themes makes for a compelling, if heavy-handed, film. Nothing about Roja's presentation is subtle. The film pits the appealing everyman presence of Arvind Swamy against a brooding, hardened Pankaj Kapoor. The latter, Ratnam fits with a prominent, ugly mole on the side of his nose, as if he didn't trust Kapoor's acting chops to make the character sufficiently chilling. (Or perhaps the mole is symbolic, a blight on Kapoor's face analagous to the blight his character, rebel cell leader Liaqat, believes India has wrought on his beloved home, Kashmir.)
This is in no way a fair fight. Swamy's Rishikumar is likeable and clean cut; a mama's boy looking to marry a simple village girl though he has never even been to a village; a man willing to risk his own good reputation to protect a girl who doesn't want to be betrothed to him; a dutiful government servant who could undoubtedly make much more money taking his advanced tehnical skills private. If this isn't goody-two-shoes enough, fear not: After Rishi is kidnapped by Liaqat's cell, he gets to shout "Jai Hind!" while being beaten, and even throws his own body into smothering a burning Tiranga. Opposite this gentle, passionate hero is Liaqat's scruffy gang of freedom fighters who would as soon pistol-whip Rishi as scowl at him. And there is Liaqat himself, who at least shows some discipline and principle, even as he sends his own brother off to die for the cause. Perhaps because Liaqat shows this depth, Ratnam burdens his side of the battle with the beastly, imprisoned Wasim Khan, whose desire for Kashmiri independence expresses in remorseless viciousness. Just so we don't get too sympathetic with the rebels on account of Liaqat's prayerful thoughtfulness, Wasim Khan is there to spit and snarl his hate at Rishi's desperately innocent wife, the guileless Roja (Madhoo).
Which raises the one interesting question left after all this ham-fisted, lopsided comparison of squeaky-clean patriotism against messy, murderous rebel terrorism: Why is this film named after Roja? For sure, Roja's courage and doggedness are impressive, as she boldly demands action from the police, the military, even the Chief Minister of the state. But her tenacity is also naivete. Roja implores the CM to accede to the rebels' demand of a prisoner exchange, Wasim Khan for Rishikumar. As Colonel Rayappa (Nasser) explains to her, the Indian government should not be in the business of negotiating with terrorists or freeing remoreseless, dangerous killers for whose capture soldiers gave their lives. Roja's position, while sympathetic, is neither morally nor politically tenable. And her husband, the fiercely patriotic Rishikumar, will not consent to any such exchange.
So is Roja somehow Roja's story? All of the movie's patriotic bombast is of no relevance to Roja; she would sacrifice any number of soldiers, any of Wasim Khan's future victims, for Rishikumar's safe return. Perhaps in naming the film for her, rather than for any of its grand abstract principles or the other characters who do live and die for these principles, Mani Ratnam means to remind the audience that most of us are more like Roja than like the others. Most of us block out of our daily lives the struggles that roil in remote mountain wilderness or even in our own backyards. We don't think too much about impossible question of identifying a bright line between heroism for a cause and terrorism. Most of us, like Roja, want only to ensure the safety of the ones we love. And maybe, by titling the movie after this charming, loveable, sympathetic, naive girl, Mani Ratnam is saying that we don't all need to be self-sacrificing heroes. Most of us are Roja, and that is okay.