The film won three National Film Awards, including Best Film on National Integration, catapulting Ratnam to national acclaim. The film also gained international acclaim with its nomination for Best Film at the 18th Moscow International Film Festival. The film was later re-released for international audiences in light of the growing fear of terrorist attacks across the world. It is the first in Ratnam's trilogy of films that depict human relationships against a background of Indian politics, including Bombay (1995) and Dil Se.. (1998).
The soundtrack of the film by A. R. Rahman is hailed as a masterpiece. He debuted as a film composer with this film. He won the National Film Award for Best Music Direction, Filmfare Award for Best Music Director - Tamil and the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Music Director for his work. This soundtrack is among the "10 Best Soundtracks" of all time listed by TIME magazine, issued in 2005.
In Srinagar, a Kashmiri terrorist, Wasim Khan, is captured by a team led by Colonel Rayappa. In South India, 18-year old Roja is a simple village girl born and brought up in Sundarapandiapuram in Tirunelveli district in southern Tamil Nadu. Roja fervently wishes that her sister Shenbagam's marriage proposal with Rishi Kumar, a cryptologist working with the R.A.W. of India, goes smoothly. Unknown to her and her family, Shenbagam is in love with the son of her paternal aunt.
When Rishi wishes to speak to Shenbagam alone, she gathers enough courage to convey this and politely asks him to reject her in front of her parents, to which he obliges. To everyone’s surprise Rishi requests Roja's hand in marriage instead. Being unaware of Shenbagam's love affair, Roja is not willing to accept Rishi's proposal as she believes that he is the best match for Shenbagam but she marries Rishi, and the couple go to live in Madras while Shenbagam marries her cousin.
Initially Roja does not like what Rishi did, but when she learns of Shenbagam's love affair and consequent rejection of Rishi, she apologises and starts seeing him in a new light. Love blossoms, and life is blissful for the couple for a short while. Meanwhile, due to the illness of his Chief, Rishi is assigned to an army communications centre in Baramulla to intercept military intelligence. The couple find themselves in a beautiful yet alien land. Roja's world turns upside down when Rishi is abducted by terrorists whose agenda is to separate Kashmir from India and free their leader, Wasim Khan, from judicial custody.
Faced with the daunting task of rescuing her husband, Roja runs from pillar to post, pleading with politicians and the military for help. Further complicating matters is the communication gap: She can't speak their language, and they can't speak hers. Meanwhile, Rishi, held captive by a group of terrorists led by Liaqat, an associate to Wasim Khan, tries to reason with the terrorists, about their misdirected motive for the liberation of Kashmir. Liaqat's sister shows a little compassion towards him. Initially, when Roja’s efforts fail, the Indian government denies any negotiations with the terrorists for the release of Rishi in the media.
The angered terrorists attempt to burn an Indian flag. Rishi risks his life to put out the fire and shows the terrorist how much the country means to him, a regular citizen. When Liaqat’s younger brother, who with a few other youths from his village sent across the border to Pakistan for training, is shot by the Pakistan Army, Liaqat’s strong belief is shaken, but he still manages to convince himself of the cause. Consequently, Roja’s efforts to apprise the politicians of her suffering and pain are successful as a minister pities her and offers to help.
Much to the chagrin of Rayappa, the government decides to release Wasim Khan in exchange for Rishi. Rishi, not wanting to be used as a pawn to release a dangerous terrorist, gets help from the sympathetic Liaqat’s sister and escapes — with Liaqat and his men chasing him. Rayappa, Roja and other army officers get to the hostage exchange spot with Wasim Khan, but Liaqat does not show up. The Army locks Wasim Khan up in the prison.
Rishi has managed to get close to the exchange spot on his own after evading the terrorists. During his escape, Rishi kills two terrorists. Liaqat catches up with him and holds him at gun point. Rishi reasons with Liaqat further and convinces him that his war is immoral. Liaqat lets Rishi go and he goes to the exchange spot. Liaqat escapes from the Indian Army. Rishi and Roja are united once again.Arvind Swamy as Rishikumar
Madhoo as Roja
Nassar as Colonel Rayappa
Janagaraj as Achu Maharaj
Pankaj Kapoor as Liaqat
Shiva Rindani as Wasim Khan
Vaishnavi as Shenbagam
Sathyapriya as Rishikumar's mother
Raju Sundaram (Item number – Rukkumani Rukkumani)
S.V. Venkataraman as Chandramoorthy, Rishikumar's Chief & RAW official
The inspiration for Roja came to Mani Ratnam from a real-life incident reported; an engineer was kidnapped when he had gone on a project to Srinagar, Kashmir, and his wife was fighting for his release. She had written an open letter to the terrorist, which says to a large extent, what Roja says in the film to Wasim Khan in jail. Her appeal was to the goodness of the terrorist. According to Ratnam, it was her plight that the film was based on. The rest of the screenplay in Roja was just building up towards this jail scene.
During the making of Anjali (1990), Ratnam told actor and director Kitty the outline of Roja and offered him to direct the film. Kitty declined, as he wanted to do something of his own. As Ratnam was telling him the outline, the subject became more crystallised. Kitty did not pick it up and when filmmaker K. Balachander asked Ratnam, he told him the outline. All the developments happened after that. It was Balachander who approached Ratnam to make a film for his banner. As Balachander was the inspiration and the reason for Ratnam entering Tamil films, when he asked him to make a film for his banner, Ratnam wanted it to be one of the best films they have produced. Ratnam was keen that it needed to be of Balachander's standard. Balachander instantly approved the outline of the film when Ratnam narrated. However, he disliked the title Roja ("Rose") as he felt it sounded similar to the name of a brand of crushed betel nut. Ratnam thought the title represented Kashmir because "the rose is something beautiful but with thorns". To satisfy Balachander, Ratnam suggested another title Irudhi Varai ("Till the end"), but Balachander preferred Roja, which was finalised.
Roja was the first film for which Ratnam used a Steadicam, in the shot that introduces the terrorists' hideout to the audiences. The film was made on a shoestring budget. The technicians worked for less money with the understanding that the film would also be sold for less money. It was not thought of as something that would work on a big scale. The film was composed mostly of newcomers, a new music director, and it was about Kashmir which, according to Ratnam, not much was known to Tamil people at that time. He called the film "a bit of an experiment". It is also the first in Ratnam's trilogy of films that depict human relationships against a background of Indian politics, including Bombay (1995) and Dil Se.. (1998). Roja is a contemporary adaptation of the story of Savitri and Satyavan. According to Ratnam, it was not originally planned as a political film: "It was a phase India was going through and these things affected me and found their way into my work."
Arvind Swamy made his acting debut in Ratnam's Thalapathi (1991). He was subsequently signed to play the lead role in Roja. Actress Aishwarya was initially offered the female lead, but declined it due to date issues. The role went to Madhoo. Ratnam approached Karisma Kapoor to play a Kashmiri girl, but he considered her "far too expensive for a Tamil film". Vaishnavi was cast as Roja's sister Shenbagam.
Ratnam had planned to shoot Roja in Kashmir, but extreme terrorism there forced him to shoot the film in other hill stations resembling it. Shooting locations included Coonoor, Ooty, and Manali, Himachal Pradesh. The film's cinematographer Santosh Sivan said that a lot of images were written in at the script level. Even in the Kashmir sequences, the audience only sees the snow when Roja sees it for the first time. These things were written into the script. The song "Chinna Chinna Aasai" was shot at Hogenakkal Falls in Dharmapuri and in the Banatheertham falls in Courtallam. Shakti Singh dubbed for Arvind Swamy in the Hindi version of the film, while Madhoo dubbed for herself. The whole film was completed in less than 60 days. The final length of the film was 3,750 metres (12,300 ft).
Writing for the magazine Jump Cut Kumudan Maderya noted that Roja celebrates "the middle-class yuppie hero’s nationalistic fervor" and positions the "anti-national communalist terrorists in Kashmir" as key threats to India as a whole. Vairamuthu, who was signed as the lyricist, felt the film's "tense and action-packed" content was in sharp contrast to the "poetic" title.
Roja was released on 15 August 1992. In August 2015, it was screened at the 2015 London Indian Film Festival, in the retrospective series Politics as Spectacle: The Films of Mani Ratnam, along with Bombay and Dil Se.
Roja received positive reception for its patriotic themes. On 26 September 1992, K. Vijayan of New Straits Times wrote, "Under [Mani Ratnam]'s direction, [Arvind] and [Madhoo] gave their best ... The excellent photography by Santhosh Sivan [who was also the cameraman for Thalapathi] makes us appreciate the beauty we take for granted in the villages. The snow-capped mountains and flower-covered valleys of Kashmir are also an eyeful." Writing for The Indian Express, Malini Mannath called Roja an "Indianised" version of the television film Held Hostage (1991), based on the kidnapping of journalist Jerry Levin whose rescue was organised by his wife. She praised Arvind Swamy's performance, calling him "dignified and natural". She criticised Madhoo's performance in the scenes where Roja pleads for her husband's rescue, saying, "Her tremulous whisper praying for help, sounds contrived". She also felt that Pankaj Kapoor looked "lost in his role", but lauded the cinematography by Santosh Sivan and the editing by Suresh Urs.
In 2016, Chetan Suryanarayana of Rediff.com called the Hindi version of Roja his "favourite patriotic movie". The soundtrack by A. R. Rahman was included in the "10 Best Soundtracks" of all time listed by Time magazine, issued in 2005.
Roja emerged a commercial success in the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi markets.
1993 National Film Awards (India)Won – Silver Lotus Award – Best Music Director – A. R. Rahman
Won – Silver Lotus Award – Best Lyricist – Vairamuthu
Won – Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration
Madhoo's performance took her close to winning in the category of Best Actress, but she eventually lost to Dimple Kapadia.
1993 Filmfare Awards SouthWon – Filmfare Best Movie Award (Tamil) – Roja
Won – Filmfare Best Music Director Award (Tamil) – A. R. Rahman
1993 Tamil Nadu State Film Awards (India)Won – Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Film
Won – Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Director – Mani Ratnam
Won – Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actor – Arvind Swamy
Won – Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Music Director – A. R. Rahman
1993 Shantaram AwardsWon – Best Director – Mani Ratnam
1993 Moscow International Film Festival (Russia)Nominated – Golden St. George (Best Film) – Mani Ratnam
Bite the Mango Film Festival (United Kingdom)Featured screening and premiere – Roja
Wangfujing Film Festival (Beijing)Special screening – Roja
Indian Film Week (Moscow)Screening in the category of "From the classics to the contemporary" – Roja