Directed by: Mani Ratnam || Produced by: Kailasam Balachander , S. Sriram, Mani Ratnam, Jhamu Sughand 
Screenplay by: Mani Ratnam || Starring: Arvind Swami [1, 2], Madhoo Shah , Manisha Koirala 
Music by: A. R. Rahman || Cinematography: Santosh Sivan , Rajiv Menon  || Edited by: Suresh Urs || Country: India || Language: Tamil, Hindi
Running Time: 137 minutes , 130 minutes  || 1 = Roja, 2 = Bombay
One of the first Indian movies I saw was Dil Se (1998; “From the Heart… “), starring Shah Rukh Khan at the height of his powers (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge  made him a star three years earlier and Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai  released a couple months later that year) in a story and performance that would become, in hindsight, against type compared to the vast majority of the King Khan’s career. Even at the time, Dil Se felt different from the handful of Bollywood (Hindi language) films I had seen prior, with its dark, morbid tone and gritty narrative about Assamese separatism, guerilla warfare, sexual violence, and overall believable, consistent diegetic realism; all the above contrasted with the over-the-top romantic melodramas and wild, “masala filmmaking” style that dominated mainstream 1990s-2000s Hindi Cinema (see also Parallel Cinema), and yet I was furthermore struck by the movie’s powerhouse musical numbers and unforgettable soundtrack, one of the best prolific composer A. R. Rahman has ever produced. Dil Se possessed a consistent genre structure, yes, but also executed populist South Asian film musical elements with aplomb, as good if not better than the average Bollywood crowdpleaser.
What undid Dil Se for me was the unconvincing central romance between Khan and female lead Manisha Koirala, but I have never stopped thinking about that movie thanks to its aforementioned characteristics, nor its writer-producer-director, Mani Ratnam. One of the most prolific Indian filmmakers of the last thirty years, Ratnam has directed 28 features since the early 1980s with writer and/or producer’s credits on almost as many as of December 2022. His greater filmography outside of Dil Se remained a significant blindspot for me within South Asian filmmaking over the past decade, however, which I somewhat addressed last week after watching Roja and Bombay.
These two films, together with 1998’s Dil Se, make up the director’s so-called “terrorism trilogy,” a trio of romantic dramas enmeshed within tense sociopolitical settings like the Kashmiri insurgency (Roja), Muslim-Hindu tensions amidst the 1992-1993 Bombay riots (Bombay), and the Assam independence movement (Dil Se). Unlike many lesser Indian or Western awards-bait that attempt to meld populist melodrama with historical commentary to the benefit of neither, all three of these movies succeed in building a cohesive romantic narrative around touchy subject-matter that rarely preaches to its audience. Roja and Bombay in particular feel like real stories about real characters, just heightened through enough dramatic set-pieces and stylish song-and-dance numbers to sell their emotional relationships in a glossy, memorable blockbuster format.
Whereas Dil Se nailed its political backdrop against dynamite musical elements, but faltered in the chemistry of its primary characters, Roja and Bombay are somewhat less charismatic on the musical front and less effective at incorporating real-world social commentary into their diegeses. Roja in particular is notable for the film soundtrack debut of Rahman, who has scored every single Ratnam film since, as well as its Haider (2014)-esque exploration of the Kashmir territorial conflict. On the other hand, both Roja and Bombay craft superior relationships between their male and female leads compared to not just the weak romance of Khan and Koirala in Dil Se, but most Indian films in general.
The first movie of this thematic trilogy, Roja, is my least favorite of the three films given its repetitive, troublesome background score and inconsistent second half; while Rahman’s musical numbers are catchy and take advantage of Ratnam’s commitment to location-photography and use of a wide variety of castmembers (e.g. child, middle-aged, and senior citizen extras as well as the good-looking stars), I found much of the background music outside the dance sequences repetitive, misused, or tonally inappropriate relative to the visuals. Ratnam’s poor usage of Rahman’s score is most evident in Roja’s latter half, which involves male lead Arvind Swami’s abduction by Pakistani-trained Kashmiri insurgents and female lead Madhoo Shah’s mission to negotiate his release; this section of the film should feel exciting, and I appreciate how Shah’s active perspective is favored over Swami’s passive, often defenseless status, but many scenes with the latter involve Swami preaching heavy-handed platitudes to his captors (e.g. Pankaj Kapur), saving an Indian flag from defacement, or attempting escape only to be escorted back to his hideout moments later. Throughout these forgettable scenes, Rahman’s soundtrack ranges from funky bass guitar-riffs to choir vocals with cornball patriotic lyrics, all of which either don’t fit with the sequences in which they’re played or overpower them.
Part of my ambivalence toward Roja as a whole is related to how disjointed its two halves feel, as the meet cute between Swami and Shah, their family’s urban vs. rural cultural exchange, and the development of their emotional connection over the first hour feel like a different, much better movie. The only aspects of Roja’s Kashmir-plot I liked were the brisk, action-packed prologue where an Indian army squad raids a terrorist camp at dawn, and the creative chase sequence shot in the Himachal Pradesh Himalayas at the end where Swami finally escapes his captors.
Bombay, this time featuring an interreligious romance between Swami, a middle-class orthodox Hindu protagonist, and Koirala, a working-class Muslim female lead, is a significant upgrade relative to Roja. Despite its generic title, Bombay interweaves the forbidden relationship between its two main characters through its social commentary with grace and minimal preaching; their believable character development starts in a remote, almost idyllic coastal village in Tamil Nadu a la Roja, and then transitions to their elopement to the titular Maharashtrian city once their respective families unsurprisingly reject their union.
While the most iconic sequences of this film involve our principal characters’ survival of the Muslim-Hindu riots that ravaged India in the wake of the Babri Majid demolition in 1992, I’d argue the greatest attributes of Bombay involve Ratnam’s numerous Spielbergian (i.e. subtle, not calling attention to themselves) long takes and creative shot distance transitions. Ratnam’s effective ensemble staging in Roja transforms several steps further in Bombay through a variety of creative dolly maneuvers, long camera pans, and powerful blocking techniques that emphasize dramatic dialogue better than the snappiest Aaron Sorkin-style banter. Top to bottom, Ratnam’s directorial command of visual movement and narrative tone feel so much stronger here than in Roja, which boasted a neat SteadiCam oner introducing a terrorist camp at one point, but little else in terms of memorable storytelling camerawork.
Roja, in other words, is best summarized in terms of its musical and screenwriting inconsistency, while Bombay’s primary romance is accentuated by its filmmaker’s creative cinematography and its fiery diegetic background. Each film features stronger characterizations than the most famous installment of this Indian “sectarian conflict trilogy,” Dil Se, though unfortunately neither Roja nor Bombay rival the latter in terms of sheer iconic musical set-pieces. While Roja left me cold, overall, due to its surprisingly inconsistent A. R. Rahman soundtrack and lackluster portrayal of Kashmiri geopolitics, Bombay lived up to the hype thanks to its charismatic yet not distracting camerawork, effective blend of emotional character development and social commentary, and just the right amount of melodrama.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I grow apprehensive most every time a mainstream Bollywood, South Indian, Hollywood, or mainland Chinese film covers firebrand sociopolitics, but Mani Ratnam balances straightforward genre entertainment and real-life tragedy better than most auteur directors. At their strongest, Roja and Bombay take advantage of memorable romantic drama at the heart of their screenplays thanks to a variety of “quiet” cinematographic techniques that emphasize storytelling efficiency before the director of photography’s athleticism, unlike, say, Emmanuel Lubezki’s work for Alfonso Cuarón (e.g. Y Tu Mama También , Children of Men , Gravity , Roma ) and Alejandro Iñárritu (e.g. Birdman , The Revenant ).
— However… Roja features the worst (most overrated?) soundtrack of A. R. Rahman’s career next to Lagaan (2001), while the sectarian backdrops of both films threaten to overwhelm their characterizations on occasion.
—> I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to Roja, but Bombay comes RECOMMENDED.
? Did Rahman reuse parts of the Bombay theme in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996)?
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