25 years since the “Roja” blossomed!!!

It was in the year 1992, exactly 25 years ago. I was in Cochin learning the ropes in my 1st job. Weekends were usually time for catching up on films of all hue. And that particular weekend was reserved for what eventually turned out to be a landmark film in Indian cinema in many ways than one. The film Roja was helmed by Maniratnam who had by then become a sort of a cult in Tamil cinema with back to back hits. The film had many firsts to its credit. For the 1st time, a Mani’s film was not about a Robin hoodish character (like in Pagal Nilavu, Nayagan, and Thalapathi) or not of relationships in uber cool urban setting (like in Mouna Ragam, Agni Natchatiram, Idayathai Thirudathey, and Anjali).  In this he explored a new template that of setting up a relationship story with a conflict as backdrop and one that he would often deploy in his career later with mixed success (Bombay, Iruvar, Dil Se, Kannathil Muthamittal,…).  And more importantly for the 1st time a Maniratnam film did not have Ilayaraja as the music director. One with whom he had partnered since his 1st film and delivered some eternal music. Instead he introduced a rookie, young talent to the world called A.R. Rahman who was till then doing jingles for ads. Leo coffee apart from providing the caffeine quotient to South Indians also has the distinction of providing 2 heartthrobs to Indian Cinema – Rahman and Arvind Swamy!!!

Leaving the theatre after the film Roja, I was disappointed with the film. I thought that the film was good but not great. And Mani whose films are deeply rooted in realism, in this had an overdose of melodrama particularly in the end. But then in the theatre at the climax when Arvind Swamy is let off by his captors and gets to unite with his wife, there was a standing ovation. So I guess it all worked for Mani and the film.

So is this post a review of the film Roja 25 years late as the title may suggest? I guess not. But of the genius called Rahman which the film bequeathed to us. Being an ardent and unapologetic fan of Ilayaraja, I guess the first reason for not liking the film Roja was probably that Raja was not doing the music. But in the film as the 1st song – Chinna China Aasai, played out, the music and the visuals were just breathtaking. It was clear that we were entering into a new era of sounds in Tamil music.  SPB, Chithra and other many new comers who were singing in the film were all sounding differently. The songs started growing on you and so did the film. By the time, the Hindi version of Roja got released and became a “super-dubber” hit, Mani was excused and I came out of denial to accept that he has indeed made another great film!

Post Roja, Rahman continued to belt hit songs one after another and he was soon becoming a rage. Whether it was feet tapping numbers like Chikku bukku rayile, Petta Rap,.. or melodies like Narumugaiye, Ennavale,.. or folk numbers like Poraale Ponnu thayee soon Rahman’s music was all over the place.  And in South India where the benchmark for a musician is always how “sound” his/her basics are in classical music (read as Carnatic), Rahman’s deployment of Carnatic ragas in some of his compositions was deft and subtle.  In the song Kanna Moochi yenada for the film Kandukonden, Kandukonden, Rahman’s blending of ragas Natta Kurinji and Sahana is exceptional. Also in the song Narumugaiye in Iruvar the classical Nattai raga gets a Rahman touch. And in the song – Vidukathaiyaa intha Vaazhkai from the film Muthu, a situation (watch here) which is melancholic Rahman aptly uses Ahir Bhairavi – a raga suited to convey such emotions (Remember Viswanathan-Ramamurthy’s Ullathil Nalla Ullam,… in Karnan??). Enough to get into the good books of even the purists of Mylapore, I say!!  While doing all this, he was also in the forefront of turning “Super-Singers” to Stars and breaking the hegemony of established stalwarts. Soon capping new comers would become a mandatory trait for all music composers!

But still for the ears – which were so used to the melody and rhythm of Ilayaraja for probably 20 years since childhood, the new sounds of Rahman were still offbeat.  It was only much later that we came to know that in the film Punnagai Mannan which was touted to be the 1st to use computerized music, while Ilayaraja wrote the score, it was a young kid in his late teens named A. R. Rahman who actually handled the music sequencer for the theme music (listen here).

The fact was, in the initial period Rahman’s songs were sounding similar to his own earlier compositions and ended up being predictable. So, for many of us Raja fans, it was either Raja or Rahman and cannot be both.

By 2000 I had moved back to Mumbai and with that got to follow more Hindi music. Soon after, in 2001, the epic Hindi film – Lagaan had released. And Lagaan had Rahman as the music composer.  Apart from the various facets of the film which makes Lagaan a milestone film – the music score of Rahman was out of the world. Just in the first few minutes into the film as the song Ghanan Ghanan Ghanan starts playing out, one could make out that this was a hitherto not seen/heard Rahman. From then on, I became an unapologetic fan of Rahman. It was no longer Raja or Rahman but Raja and Rahman.

With his success in films like Roja, Dil Se, Lagaan Rahman became the 1st music composer from the South to leave an imprint in Bollywood. Directors from Bollywood didn’t mind making the trips to Chennai and burn the midnight oil (almost all his recording happens in the night – we are told) to get their music score done by Rahman.  And Rahman who keeps saying that he wants to continuously keep stretching his own limits –often walked this talk. His later movies particularly in Hindi like Jodha Akbar, Dilli 16, Rockstar,… explored new aspects of Sufi music till then not touched by earlier composers and brought Sufi music to the centre stage of Bollywood. And again for a person from the South of the Vindhyas to compose some wonderful Punjabi folk numbers in films like Rang De Basanti, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Rockstar,,.. is something extraordinary.  Just as we keep thinking that Rahman is past his prime he surprises us with some outstanding music. In the film Tamashaa for example. Or even in the otherwise forgettable film Kochadaiyaan (the shifting of Octave as the song progresses in Meduvaagathaan,… – is nuanced music at its best)

Talking of Rahman and not mentioning of his Oscar would seem to be unjust. But then personally for me, The Slumdog Millionaire (TSM) was not Rahman’s best effort. Yes, it got him the Oscar and we should be proud of that. But beyond that, I think his own work in some of the Indian films far outweigh TSM or his other Hollywood efforts.

Comparisons of the music of Raja and Rahman are odious and unfair but unavoidable. To me Raja is an outstanding music composer. And Rahman an outstanding music Engineer. A true Engineer lives and dies by “Efficiency” as defined as “Output/Input” in his/her work.  So Rahman uses voices, scores, instruments, sounds and technology (Inputs) to optimize the eventual music output. Ilayaraja is a composer first who depends on the tune/score largely and then the right arrangement and less of technology. His music horse sense is what he brings to the table than the machines. Hence he is unparalleled in terms of understanding the musical needs of a situation. That’s why Raja’s songs always lift the situations in the films and he is way ahead of the rest as for as background score is concerned.  This debate can go on and on.

For a Raja-Rahman fan like me, what about a film that too by Maniratnam with music by Ilayaraja and Rahman – where Raja composes the tunes for the songs, writes the background score while Rahman does the arrangement, records the music, mixes it and we get to hear the magic!!! Well wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate 40 years of (Anna) Kili’s chirping and 25 years of the Roja blossoming???

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Kabini – where Nature Unwinds!!!

Kabini – heard the name  for the 1st time when the TV commercial for Orange County Resorts was playing again and again a year ago.  The flute bit (check this out)was enchanting and inviting. The next course of action followed naturally – Google ‘Kabini’.  200 odd Kms from Bangalore Bengaluru, amidst forest area, natural serene place and the name of Orange County were reasons enough to lock this for the next holiday. Having missed the opportunity in summer, didn’t want to miss the second opportunity which came last week in the form of “Durga Puja” holiday and there we were off to Bengaluru en route to Kabini.

Signs of “Your kind of Airport – Coming soon” welcome you as you touchdown in Bengaluru.  For an airport which was just thrown open to public I guess 3-4 years ago, going for an expansion so soon means either the traffic has exploded or the planning was woefully shortsighted.  Both are not of surprise in Incredible India! Weather in Bengaluru is one among the many things I love of the city and as expected it was pleasant and just great.  As we navigated out of the airport one hoped that the distance of 208 kms would be covered in 4 hours.  The reality was different. 

A light shower started glazing the Bengaluru – Mysore highway as we drove past the town Ramanagara where folklore has it that “Kitne Admi The?” the most enduring line of Bollywood and many memorable scenes of the iconic film Sholay were shot with the rocky terrain of this town as backdrop!!   As we take a turn from Srirangapatna and on the final stretch towards Kabini, the scenic beauty just enthralls you. Away from the hustle bustle of the city and its smoke, a lazy charm engulfs you as you drive on what is just ‘R’ of a Road!!!  As you keep seeing the signs of Airtel, Sun Direct and Videocon on top of houses, one cannot but feel impressed at the Dish TV penetration in small towns of India. DTH – Direct to Hinterland???

Maddening traffic before hitting the outskirts of the Bengaluru city, a 30 min. lunch break and the last ‘No Road’ stretch of 40 kms leading to the resort means we took in all 6 hours to cover 208 kms.!!! You need more than a normal welcome as you reach the resort after the long drive and we were not disappointed. Within few minutes in the resort, the journey and its tiredness are all forgiven and forgotten. The staff and the Nature start working their charm on you!

The resort is right at the banks of River Kabini and has a breathtaking view. 

View of the River Kabini

The rooms are in individual hut style and meshes completely with the ecosystem.   We are told that they have been styled in the Kadu Kurubastyle which is the local tribe in this part of the world. 

Kuruba Syled Huts

An Activity instructor briefs you of the various activity options for the next 3 days. But he missed one important activity which was on top of our minds – Just lazing around!  There was another activity which seemed missing. The jungle safari and the lake safari which take you to the Nagarhole forest reserve for some wildlife sightings of the ‘natural’ type have been banned by the Supreme Court.  Though the ban has been lifted recently the local government is still skeptical of the ‘wild’ human types creating inconvenience to the actual wild types.  So we had to make do with the captive elephant in the resort for some time pass.  Sunset cruise in the lake, bird watching walks, Ayurveda therapy,…,… are all there to fill your time.  A Coracle ride in the river brings you memories of Maniratnam’s classic ‘Roja’.  One cannot escape thinking of the captivating sequence of Chinna Chinna Aasai (Choti si Aasha)” as the coracle swirls in water aided by the breeze.  Take a row oops bow – Maniratnam, Rahman & Santosh Sivan!! 

Coracle Ride

The resort has a captivating “Reading lounge” with a collection of books centering around wildlife, nature,… I found it an amazing place – tranquil, with a stunning view of Nature and a collection of books.  And free flowing Coffee!!!  Yes, pure coffee from the hills of Coorg of the ‘filter’ type is served hot and you don’t need a better incentive to keep walking up to the lounge again and again!

Invariably there were light showers in the evenings making the coffee tastier. In one of the evening we were shown glimpses of the “Kuruba” tribal culture with some folk songs and dance by the local men. Just realized that it’s a routine they have to go through every now and then for the urban ‘matter of fact’ people like us seeking some peace of mind there.  However their enthusiasm and commitment were infectious.

Food at the resort was great with the chefs paying personal attention to your specific needs.  As the ‘holiday fat’ kept on adding itself to various parts of the body, you realize that it is time to wind up and leave.  A line about the staff. The resort has some great people who were extremely genial, highly motivated with great passion for serving the guests.   They went out of the way in making our stay extremely comfortable and memorable. Many ‘Namaskaras‘ to this tribe’ and may it get bigger! (The staff has been trained to greet you with “Namaskara” whenever they see you)

The way back was more predictable as it always happens. You know what is coming ahead.  Except for a pleasant surprise when we stopped by at the town Maddur for lunch. As I was launching myself into “Maddur Vada” a local snack at “Adigas” – suddenly I could hear the enchanting sounds of “Santoor” instrument in the air. Pandit Shivkumar Sharma the great exponent of Santoor was walking in to have a bite there. The boy who was waiting his table had little clue that he was serving a living legend of our country – well can’t blame him. He is not of the Doordarshan generation and between Balaji’s emotional hatyachaar there is no ‘Bhaje Sargam Har Taraf Se’   fillers these days!  The excitement of having the legend for company compensated for the food at Adigas which was certainly disappointing.

On the Jet airways plane while returning– one couldn’t help think of the days when India had 2 world class domestic airlines. One (Kingfisher’s) future is uncertain and the other (Jet Airways) is living in past glory!

Kabini? Kabhi Nahin! Was the refrain as we endured the 6 hour drive on our onward journey. But the place, the resort, its people, the sights, the serenity, coffee …,… meant it was all worth it. After all you don’t want to miss a place where Nature also unwinds and takes a break!!!

Please take a look at the short video I’ve put together when you have the time :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8Eph2IZIO0&feature=g-upl

Kabini By Night