When Roja was released on August 15, 1992, it was Madhoo's expressive face that brought home the Kashmir conflict to many Indians who lived far from the troubled region. The actor made her debut with K Balachander's Azhagan (1991), but Mani Ratnam's Roja is the film that propelled her to national fame.
Madhoo plays the titular character in Roja and is a young woman from a village in Tamil Nadu. Her life changes when she marries Rishi (Arvind Swamy), a cryptologist working for India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Initially, she's unhappy about the marriage since Rishi was supposed to marry her older sister. Just as the couple start falling in love, Rishi is sent on an assignment to Kashmir. He takes Roja with him. While in Kashmir, Rishi is abducted by separatists and it falls upon Roja to negotiate with the government and bring her husband home. The film won three National Awards, including one for its music, which was composed by AR Rahman who made his stunning debut with this film.
Here are selected excerpts from our conversation with Madhoo, in which she recalled what it was like to be on the sets of Roja, travelling from a Tamil Nadu village to Rohtang Pass, and her views on cinema.
Do you remember the first scene that you shot for Roja?
Yes! It was the village scene in Sundarapandiapuram. I had to come running through the village, and we had that part when I say "Piduchirkunu sollu, pidichurkunu sollu" (Say that you like her) at the girl-seeing ceremony. I remember Mani Sir took many, many close-ups of me saying this line. I also remember how I had to shout, "Akkava paaka maapla vandhirkanga!" (The groom has come to see my sister!) while running through the village. That was the first schedule, first day.
What were your impressions when you heard the script?
I remember the day Mani Sir told me the story. It happened in his house, and my father and I were there for the script narration. I'm not a very script-oriented person even now and back then, it was less so. I just wanted to work in movies and I was happy to be the heroine. When I knew Mani Sir was directing it, it would have never occurred to me to look at the script and say no. I knew that I was playing Roja, the lead.
Appa and I listened to the story, and Mani Sir said a portion of it would be shot in Leh-Ladakh. When we came out of the sitting, Appa and I were wondering how we'd go that far – to Leh-Ladakh! But it so happened that the film was shot in Manali instead of Kashmir.
Did Mani Ratnam ever tell you why he decided to cast you for the role?
I actually didn't even know that I was giving an audition for the film! I was shooting for Balachander Sir's movie Azhagan and Vaaname Ellai, and on one of my off days in the schedule, I was told to go to Mani Sir's office by Balachander Sir. The same make-up and hair stylist came with me and I was given a scene to read with Hasini (Mani Ratnam's wife Suhasini who is also an actor and director). I had a modern haircut at the time, so they put a wig on me and made a long plait. I had no idea that this was an audition and that I had been selected. The next thing I knew, Mani Sir told me the story and we shot the film. It was only much, much later that I came to know that many girls had auditioned for the role.
At the heart of the film is the romance between Rishi and Roja, a naive woman who is separated from her husband just after she falls in love with him. You were only 23 when you played the role. Did it come easily to you?
Back then, we never analysed anything so much. I never thought about how I had to get into the skin of such a character. I'm not proud of it, it's who I am even now. It's something that comes from within me and if my director likes it, it fits. In the village scene that I told you about, Mani Sir took his time with each shot, shaping me. I was very nervous and he took many retakes. After that, when we moved to the north, Mani Sir didn't spend too much time telling me what to do on retakes. The understanding between him and me had happened by then. I guess that meant that I had gotten into the character the way he had imagined it.
Had you been to Manali and all those places that the film was shot in before that?
No! That was the first time in my life that I saw and touched snow. I'd never travelled to Switzerland or any such place that had snow before that.
So your expressions in the 'Pudhu Vellai Mazhai' song were genuine?
Absolutely! The shoot for that song happened in Rohtang Pass. We went by car and I remember seeing military vans paving the road. There was one spot where we turned and there was no road any more. It was just white everywhere! It was quite scary, and I remember thinking that if the snow melted, we could be buried alive in the car. At the same time, it was so thrilling. Like being in one of those scary rides in Disneyland. There's a shot of Arvind and I coming down the mountain on a plastic sheet. I was like a child, really enjoying it!
I remember Arvind told me to wear sunglasses because the light reflecting from the snow can damage my corneas. I found that so intelligent. I thought to myself, "Oh my god, this hero is such an intellectual!"
Did the chemistry you had with Arvind on screen happen just like that?
I honestly don't know how chemistry happens. My theory is that both actors have to be fully in character. I believed myself to be Roja, feeling this love, this sense of abandonment and loss. Arvind and I had such an easy relationship. He didn't act like a hero and neither was I an established star. We were just two people trying to live our director's vision. The film felt very personal to me because I had so many first time moments while shooting it.
Do you feel the idea of nationalism that we saw in Roja has changed in mainstream cinema now?
Every movie is a reflection of its maker. As an actor, I know that whatever role I play, be it a grandmother or a cop, there will be an aspect of my being that is reflected in it. Mani Sir was making a film on such a crucial subject, and he handled it with so much love and care. As you correctly said, the premise of the movie is the love story between Roja and Rishi. But the plot is about Rishi's kidnapping, terrorism, patriotism…he managed to bring the romance into it so beautifully. So many people have told me how Roja was the first film they watched in the theatre with their partner. Yes, it is a romance, but at the same time, when that song 'Bharat Humko Jaan Se Pyaara' ('Tamizha Tamizha' in Tamil) plays, everyone got goosebumps. Mani Sir brought so much sensitivity into it.
Going forward, our times have changed. Be it romance or nationalism, everything has become so abrasive. Take Dil Se, the romance between Manisha Koirala and Shah Rukh Khan was so amazing. Where do people hold hands or look into each other's eyes now in movies? I belong to the Mani Ratnam era, that romance and that patriotism.
There's now a lot of talk on pan-Indian films. Roja was one such early attempt from the South. Did you think the film would be such a big success across the country?
I didn't expect anything. Today, when a film of mine releases, I follow reviews, I check Twitter. But I didn't even know when Roja was released! We didn't have screenings or premieres where the heroine was called – I don't know if the heroes were called for such things. They would just create a hundred posters and stick it everywhere, and the movie would come out. In fact, I've never been to any such event for any of my super successful movies, be it Annayya, Azhagan or Yodha. Annayya was a huge hit in Karnataka and I didn't even know that it had become a hit because once I was done with the film, I wasn't in touch with them.
I don't know if I was ignorant back then, but it worked out for me. I never took myself or my success too seriously. If a movie didn't do well or if I wasn't appreciated in it, it didn't touch my soul. I was not broken by it. Today, people give you their opinion right in your face on social media. No matter how thick-skinned you are, you get affected.
Actors like Neena Gupta have spoken about how it's so difficult for women of a certain age to get good roles. Did you experience that when you came back to the industry?
I have a very happy family and social life, but a few years into my marriage, I realised that I also missed acting and it was within me. You have to believe me when I say that when I made my comeback, I just wanted to step out of my home, wear makeup and stand before the camera and work. In the space that I was in, I couldn't spend too many days on acting, so I was looking for roles that demanded only two to four days of my time. I did films like Surya Vs Surya (2015) where I played the regular, caring mother. I knew I couldn't do the young heroine role that I was doing in the Nineties, and all I was looking for was a break.
But as the years passed and my children grew older, my purpose has changed. Now I consider myself as an acting professional. I don't go for small roles, I ask what I'm doing in the film. If I'm asked to play someone's mom, I ask if it's the usual insignificant mother role or if she does something more. I've been doing some interesting roles, like the upcoming Amazon Prime web series Sweet Kaaram Coffee and [the film] Shaakuntalam. There's also the Kannada film Raymo that I've done with Sarathkumar and will be out soon. I play the hero's mother, but it's also about older romance and there's a whole other angle to the character.
What can you tell us about working with Samantha in Shaakuntalam?
I don't share screen space with her. I'm playing her mother in the film and I asked myself how I could be Sam's mom! But the explanation is that I'm playing the apsara Menaka who never ages. It was a pleasure working with Gunasekhar Sir (director). He's very old school. All my directors now are half my age and I'm loving it because they're keeping me relevant. I'm learning new-age nuances of acting and filmmaking. But when I went back to Gunasekhar Sir's set, I felt the joy of old school cinema. It was amazing and I felt like I was back in the Nineties.