Roja

(A post by @krtgrphr)

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet; 

Think of a little village, nestled away between hills rolling and green; not lofty enough that one may call them mountains, yet a definite relief from the flat landscape. A little waterfall tumbling into a pond; paddy fields lush and full.

Think a rowdy, riotous wedding celebration. Old and young dancing with joy, the innuendo but thinly cloaked by their quavering voices. An atmosphere of merriment accompanied by thumping beats.

Think back to the amazement at the first glimpse of snow, the pure white blanket that covers everything and more. The crisp winter air, denuded trees …

Lovers separated, a composition in sadness. The wafting voice that gives direction through a forest of pain, the struggle with the loss. Memories, memories, memories …

A together song. An exhortation to put an end to everything, to listen to that little voice within, the voice of reason, the voice of compassion. That we are all one, that this is all ours. The song of one.

 

The year 1992 was a long time ago. The European Union was just getting on to its legs at Maastricht, and Los Angeles was ablaze for weeks in the wake of Rodney King’s beating. In India, a new Prime Minister trying to push through a semblance of economic reforms and usher in a new era was rudely interrupted by a financial scam the likes of which the business world had never seen. Before the year was out, a mosque would be pulled to the ground and the simmering issue of fundamentalism – like a pressure cooker brought to the brink once too often – would have its lid blown off, resulting in explosions metaphorical and literal across the length of the land.

And in this (admittedly awkwardly constructed) context came a movie about the charged up issue of the times, an issue that was fast emerging on the national consciousness and in news reports day in and day out.  Insurgency and terrorism had come to the Kashmir valley, and become an issue that dominated the nation’s attention.

Our films, a very present reflection of our realities, tried to come to terms with this change as well. Mani Ratnam, about to embark on the first of what would eventually become a much-acclaimed trilogy on insurgencies and terrorism, was looking for a new sound to usher his film into this bold, new world.

A director already established, he had worked with the undisputed king of the Tamil music industry – Ilaiyaraja – for almost all of his past work; work that included movies and albums great and diverse like Mouna Ragam, Agni Natchathiram, Nayagan, Dalapathi and Anjali, the musical master’s 500th movie.

But if the 80s were about looking within and the cinema of introspection, the 90s promised a new decade of cinema that acknowledged the changing global context that was being brought into everyone’s lives and living rooms. The music, always an integral part of any Indian movie experience, needed to adapt and keep pace with this change as well. A global sound was required for a global stage, yet the charm of the hinterland needed to be preserved, not expunged. And so Mani Ratnam turned to a little-known composer of ad-jingles and his retinue of new sounds and instruments, singers and choruses.

 

For AR Rahman, the film may have offered a path into the lucrative business of film music, but it also meant devoting time away from the ad-jingles that had made him what he was and that gave him sustenance – both material and otherwise. It may be hard without the benefit of the fullness of time to tell what really swayed the decision one way over the other, but so … on to the album itself.

Set in a little village in the lush green countryside, the first visuals – and sounds – that greeted moviegoers would set the stage for the local part of the dichotomy. And so, as the first images flashed on to the screen, the introduction to the little village and the little girl, central to the entire movie. Her dreams, her desires, her love for the things around that was impossible to scoff at. Chinna chinna aasai or Dil hai chota sa, you just knew that this was a song about the little pleasures of everyday life in a place that one had grown up to know and love. The music and words were fantastic precisely because it was not an escape that they spoke of, but just a firm desire to dream on rooted in the reality that was this little paradise.

But then all innocence must go, whether that is through the course of things as they are or caused by a storm that approaches without. An alliance for marriage gone wrong, a hasty patch-up that leads into a life being thrown completely out of gear. And heralding that loss of innocence, a celebration in song that skirts the line between vulgar and provocative ever so teasingly. Rahman fused thumping beats (that lent themselves ever so well to the dance number that eventually resulted on screen) with the quavering voices of old women to create a folksy tune that is recognizable even today across India.

The deed now done, the transition from childhood to the big world of the outside – from the village to the various vagaries of grown-up life removed from all that one loves – now takes hold. There are little moments of joy within a sea of overwhelming sadness, and it was here that listeners had their first experience of a defining feature of AR Rahman’s film soundtracks – the BGM. In the coming years, Rahman would elevate background music into an art form by itself, but in this initial foray, he first showed glimpses of a genius at work – little tunes that would sometimes be re-used as songs in his later albums; sometimes purely instrumental, sometimes only voice. A background track for life itself.

As this new, big world begins to show itself in all its splendor, we hear about the wonders of beholding majestic snow-capped mountains as a metaphor for the discoveries of self and body. Discovery – the main theme of this track – pervades the visuals, the music, the setting; the entire experience within each frame. Just as alien as the snow on screen to the audiences watching spell-bound was the fusion of new instruments and the crescendos that followed the camera as it caressed each peak lovingly. A setting manufactured for love to establish its tender roots in the pure, pristine valley.

And then, the agony of separation. New-found love finds itself harshly interrupted, and the little plant that took root bears the flower that brings all the painful memories rushing forth. The female melody, modified from a popular saree jingle of the times, sends forth waves of melancholy without ever crossing the line into an unseemly wail; and the protagonist, he can but agonize over the turn of events.

But redemption must come, for all things global as well as local. And so the lovers once again unite, and a temporary lull is achieved. Within this small cocoon of extremely personal joy, the viewer is asked to dream up a much larger picture of reconciliation and unity – that we are one, that in spite of all our differences and diversity, we all come from our own little local realities to make one big world where we all must co-exist. Music has always lent itself well to superlatives and fantasies, and the real impact of this track can be felt every August at every street, corner and TV set with each re-use.

 

Today, twenty years on, the soundtrack remains as fresh as it was the day it came out; the day audiences crowded themselves into theaters and sat entranced from the opening bars of Chinna Chinna Aasai down to the end of the titles at the end that had Tamizha Tamizha playing behind them. The timelessness of the album is matched only by its versatili
ty, and the stunning fact that no matter which language it was composed for – Tamil originally, but later for Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam and Marathi – each song took hold of the listeners and stayed with them. Heralding the advent of a genius into the lives of Indians irrespective of language or location, the album lives on today as fresh as the rose growing out of the snow from which it borrows its name.

Roja.

Rojabig

(Image Courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rojabig.jpg)

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