Cinema and the State: How Mani Ratnam's Roja Made You an Unsuspecting Nationalist

 The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of the EPW. 

 

January 1993. A cinema hall in Hyderabad. The Telugu version of Maniratnam's film Roja is being shown. Every show displays the “house full” board, and every seat in the theatre is occupied. From the opening minutes of the film, the morning show audience (mostly male, middle and lower-middle class, possibly college-going) indulges in loud cheering and shouting, their slogans calculated to strike a special chord after the destruction of the Babri masjid just a few weeks previously: Jai Sri Ram, Pakistan Murdabad, Bharat Mata ki Jai. (Niranjana 1994)

Roja, a seminal film directed by Mani Ratnam over 26 years ago, was awarded the Best Feature Film on National Integration. The government even waived the entertainment tax on it. Originally made in Tamil, it was dubbed and released in Hindi and Telugu as well. The box-office hit evoked in its audience a nationalistic fervour, as the titular Roja, the female protagonist, from small-town Tamil Nadu fights against all odds to rescue her husband who has been kidnapped by Kashmiri militants. 

Roja is not merely a love story. It portrays Kashmir as the quintessential paradise lost—for the tourist, and for the larger Indian state. It is set against the backdrop of the demand for azaadi, but the contestations around it are dismissed in favour of a unified India. In the early 1990s, the raised political consciousness around the unfulfilled plebiscite evolved into civil uprisings and the region saw a rise in armed militancy. The then ruling government used excessive means to thwart such opposition. In this context, the film is significant as it was in a position to create consent towards this violence among a new emerging middle class, and re-design India’s patriotism and nationhood vis-a-vis Kashmir. 

Who are the "good" citizens and the "bad" citizens? 

In the film, an “ordinary” middle class Rishi Kumar (Arvind Swamy), a cryptologist with the government, and his new bride, Roja (Madhoo) are caught in a national conflict and what rescue them are the middle class tropes: sincerity, simplicity and their “inherent patriotism.” 

 

 

In this feature, we present a discussion on the film that unfolded in the pages of EPW in 1994 among five writers. Tejaswini Niranjana starts the discussion by showing how Roja emulates the desires of the emerging middle class and their response to the failure of the state apparatus. Venkatesh Chakravarthy, M S S Pandian respond to Niranjana, claiming that the characters are in effect fulfilling the state’s desires. S V Srinivas adds to this by bringing in the aspect of state propaganda and Rustom Bharucha presents an overview on how consent is manufactured through the film.

Almost three decades later, as Kashmir reels under greater state repression and any view critiquing the Indian state’s position on Kashmir is branded “anti-national” and is considered seditious, we revisit this discussion to understand the making of the ideal Indian patriot.

Click on the icons to read excerpts from the articles

A few other works that have broadly responded to or are related to the discussion on Cinema and the State:  

Ed: To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at edit@epw.in with the subject line— "Cinema and the State Discussion."

 

[Curated by Vishnupriya Bhandaram (vishnupriya@epw.in)]

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