Few albums come close to the impact AR Rahman's Roja was able to create for the generations that followed. Between hunting for the cassette of "a South film" in Lucknow, to getting one illegally in Saudi Arabia, the memories of Roja are distinct and vivid for everyone in the business today. Speaking to some of them on the occasion of the album's 30th anniversary, we go back to what it was like to discover Roja for the very first time.
Those were the days I'd just shifted to a new school, a convent. It was far from home, everything felt alien, and I couldn't identify with anything. Music was predominantly fear, fear of letting Baba (filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta) down. Yet, I was confused because I loved it so much. I was still listening to the Beatles, but Hindi film music was something I was trying to hold onto depending on what we watched in that particular week's Chitrahaar. Even that was a well-kept secret, because Baba didn't want us to be exposed to Bollywood music of that time.
There were movies like Phool Aur Kaante, Beta and Khuda Gawah. I think the only musical respite was 'Pehla Nasha' – it felt like balm for our existence. And then, Rahman crept into my life. If I remember correctly, I was introduced to his music by this very odd, eccentric, typical jhola-carrying uncle. He brought in this cassette called Pudhiya Mugham (1993). I'm not trying to sound dramatic here, but it was almost like… life happened. I was listening to a lot of Western classical, Beatles around that time, but this was different. What were these melodies, these harmonies, and I remember one track in particular, which had an interlude that seemed like a conversation between a piano and a sitar. It provoked us to look into this quaint-seeming gentleman. Who was this Rahman? The love story with Roja, I think began with the alaap (in the title track). I'd heard a similar sounding alaap in a commercial featuring Aishwarya Rai and Lisa Ray for Garden sarees (also composed by Rahman) – I don't know which came first. The way the alaap went through all the pain spots in your body, it almost felt like the musical equivalent of an acupuncture. It immediately made me cry, I didn't know why. With Roja, all I seemed to hear was his Roland (synthesiser) and analogue drums – you could sense that the songs were lathered with his knowledge of Indian classical. You could hear ragas, modes, Western classical and regional folk – how does one do that? It's almost like sculpting. 'Rukumani Rukumani' was the first time I think I could dance to a Bollywood song. The album triggered this burning desire to find out what was going on in all of those songs – even though I was terrified of appearing for and failing my music exam at school. That's how the journey began.
I was playing scrabble with my friends when one of them popped the audio cassette in the player. 'Puthu Vellai Mazhai' (yeh haseen wadiyan) started playing. All of us froze and stopped the game and just kept listening to the song in awe. I remember it clearly because then it became a ritual when the next album came out—to get together and listen to it in the same house (Gokuldham in Goregaon East). Puthiya Mugham was next…
When I think about Roja, I have two strong memories. One is feeling I got the moment Pudhu Vellai Mazhai begins. Even the first humming portion in 'Kadhal Rojave'…I remember getting goosebumps. These are tunes that are imprinted onto my system. I was in Saudi when I listened to it and I had a walkman back then, but Roja wasn't the first ARR album I discovered. For me, that journey began with Dil Se. Then I got the Kadhalan cassette and only then did I buy the Roja cassette. Even now when I'm here making music, I feel there is a reason for what I'm doing and I think Roja is that reason.
It was 1992. I was 12. My mom's colleague was Tamil and when we went to her house, he played the Tamil version of the Roja album. I was completely blown away. I was like, 'Yeh kya music hai, matlab yeh kya chal raha hai.' (What is this music, what is going on here?) I was so impressed. We used to buy a lot of cassettes those days but we never bought cassettes of any other language. We used to listen to Hindi, Punjabi. We went to many cassette shops in Lucknow to find the album. It was only available in Tamil. We asked around but nobody knew about it, and we had to write it down to make them understand that it's a South Indian film. We could buy it only when they dubbed the film in Hindi and the album came out six or eight months later. Usko itna ghisa (Listened to it so many times). But it was just that one afternoon of listening to Rahman that did it… I was completely a changed person. I was like, 'Yeh toh kuchh alag hi hai'. (This is something else). You have to remember that the album came after what was the worst decade in Hindi film music, the 80s. There was a Maine Pyaar Kiya (1988) and Aashiqui (1990), and Nadeem Shravan's melodies brought something new in the 90s, but this was something else.
I heard Roja for the first time when I was a three-year-old. You don't remember a lot of things when you're that young. But if you remember something, it must have had a huge impact on you. One of those handful of memories I have from that age is listening to 'Choti Si Aasha'. I was traveling with my mom and I guess we stopped for lunch at a restaurant and I heard the song. I was hooked. Growing up, I listened to the album in Hindi and Tamil, and the album has been with me ever since. I took time to learn and sing each song at different phases of my life. It's amazing how timeless the album is. What Rahman sir has done with Roja is pure magic. The album has also helped me evolve as a singer and music producer. I spent a good day or two listening to 'Yeh Haseen Vadiyan' on my MP3 player, decode the song and then do a karaoke version of it during those days. I am currently touring with Rahman sir and in the US right now. And even today as a group of singers, whenever we talk about Roja, we are still mesmerized.
Being a nineties kid, the songs of Roja were everywhere for me, growing up. I specifically remember the moment I was listening to the beginning of 'Pudhu Vellai Mazhai' on cassette, and it was just like a brain explosion. I was so surprised by the sounds. Unless you were on a remote island, I don't think you would have not heard the album as a nineties kid. It's probably one of the first times that music had such an effect on me. The impact was at such an internal level. I cannot find any other word apart from magic to describe the album. I was already drawn to music as a kid and loved listening to my grandmother's voice. But the sounds of Roja opened a whole other door in my mind. And I think that's what has led me to this path of becoming a musician.
The album of Roja has done something to us holistically as listeners and as musicians. I suppose there was always the latency of a couple of years when we used to get the music in Canada, and the music would have already established itself in India. I first saw the video song on television and then we ended up getting the cassette. But when I did listen to the songs of Roja, the first song I heard was 'Yeh Haseen Vadiyan'. My world just kind of turned around and I was wondering what is going on when I heard the songs of Roja. And there I was, I had found my favorite composer at the time, which was obviously AR Rahman sir. I absolutely loved 'Bharat humko Jaan se pyaara hai', because there is so much about it and I remember crying hearing that song. And probably because we lived in Canada, and we were so away from home, there were so many memories associated and the moment we would hear the song (hums), that feeling was so good. I'm getting goosebumps thinking about the song and experiencing the song back home. I think there's something so haunting about the way this melody has been portrayed in the film.
Roja is a very special album for us because it was my mother's (Sujatha Mohan) re-entry into playback singing, specially in Tamil films. My mum recorded 'Pudhu Vellai Mazhai' and I think she got a copy of the cassette from Rahman sir's family before it came to the stores. We used to listen to the songs on loop for days together, for years together. Watching Roja was my first ever memory of going to a theatre and we were looking forward to listening to my mum's voice on the big screen. I very clearly remember listening to 'Chinna Chinna Aasai' and then 'Pudhu Vellai Mazhai', I think I was six years old then. When the first interlude and the bg started, it was literally magical. I was like, "Wow, this is my mum's voice." All the songs in the movie gave life to many new singers like Minmini akka, Unni Menon, and Chitra chechi. Every time the first bg starts, it's still magical, as magical as the first time I heard it – that is Roja for you.