The Politics of Identity

I now want to suggest that we can discern a politics of identity in the film grounded in its use oflanguage. Critics have focused on how both the Tamil and Hindi versions ofthe film use English to solicit audience identification with a Hindu middle-class-led dynamic of modernity.[1] This tallies with the image crystallizing around Mani Rathnam as a film-maker concerned with the modern ‘Westernized’ components of Indian national imagination.[2] But Roja’s success has been substantial, so clearly the use of English has not alienated audiences beyond the restricted domain of the middle-class. While certain phrases rest on a conversational idiom, e.g., ‘What? Come again?’, others are the coinage of youth romance in mass culture (‘I’m sorry—s.o.r.r.y.’), hardly indicative of a great familiarity with the language. Finally there are a string of words which conjure up the mystique of state and public order, terms which are part of the vocabulary of public knowledge and anxiety. ‘Security’, and ‘curfew’, tersely invoked by the technocrat hero do not require a ‘Westernized’ viewer for their deciphering.[3] The modernizing middle class is foregrounded as the fulcrum of the narrative, and thereby of national resolution, but there is a wider address in the film. The English language as the mark of Rishi Kumar’s urbanity is both a focus for ‘style’ identification, but also has a potential for suggesting cultural alienation. His formal introduction of his wife for ‘security clearance’ is brushed away by his elderly boss who welcomes Roja through references to a shared village culture. The mode of address suggests that we need to think of a layered field of identification, rather than one centring on the hero.

In the politics of the film’s use of language, the heroine occupies a crucial position. When Madhoo, the actress who plays Roja, was asked why she had not made many films she reacted quite strongly, emphasizing that she already had a substantial career in South Indian films,


though she only started her Bombay career with Phool aur Kante (Flowers and Thorns; Kuku Kohli, 1992).11 The lack of information about this other space provides us with an important framework to assess Roja. Most of the critics have referred to the original Tamil version as essentially equivalent to the dubbed Hindi one. But in the original version, language functions to highlight differences of identity which are entirely suppressed in the Hindi version: the protagonists come from Uttar Pradesh, the populous North Indian state which has been at the centre of national politics since the 1920s and has produced all but two of India’s prime ministers. As I have pointed out, in contrast Tamil political identity after Independence has often been self-consciously marginal, even oppositional to the pan-Indian one, and so this dubbing constitutes a very significant elision indeed. The logic of the national market here is one of linguistic and political levelling. This is not to suggest that the original Roja encodes an ‘authentic’ Tamil culture. Indeed, there is already a process of‘hegemonization’ in the social narrative of the marriage, suggesting to some commentators the matching of an urban elite non-Brahmin with a woman of socially lower rank.[4] [5] What I want to draw attention to is the act of appropriation invoked both in the dubbing and in the restriction of critical focus to the Hindi version.

  • [1] Bharucha raises the question of the linguistic politics involved in dubbing butdoes not expand on it. ‘The real politics of language in the film has been determinedby its dubbing from Tamil into Hindi . . . the other political dimension of languagein Roja is its uncritical, even “positive” use of the English language (which, of course,remains the same in both the Hindi and Tamil versions of the film). From the sweetbanalities of “I love you” to the more professional use of the word “cryptologist”, Rojareveals its openness to “westernization” which is part of its project of “development”in India.’ Bharucha, ‘On the Border of Fascism’, 1395.
  • [2] ‘In quite a few of his films . . . Mani Rathnam has cultivated an audience primarily composed of the newly articulate, assertive and self-confident middle class . . .’Niranjana, ‘Integrating whose Nation?’, 79.
  • [3] For an interesting argument on the phenomenon of bilingualism, see HarishTrivedi and Susan Bassnet, Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice, London,Routledge, 1999.
  • [4] Interview on Times FM Channel, 21 August 1994.
  • [5] Venkatesh Chakravarthy and M.S.S. Pandian, ‘More on Roja’, Economic andPoliticalWeekly 29 (11), 12 March 1994, 642—4, and discussion with M.S.S. Pandian.
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