The year was 1992. Manmohan Singh was Finance Minister, Harshad Mehta was in the news and Hardik Pandya was still not born. And Chennai was still known as Madras.
The city where Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam, coming off a successful collaboration with music director Ilaiyaraaja, chose to work with a young composer called AS Dileep Kumar for the first time. On this day 25 years ago, when Roja hit screens, audiences heard the gentle melody of ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ and the thundering chorus of ‘Tamizha Tamizha’. Dileep became AR Rahman and Roja went on to be listed in Time magazine’s 10 Best Soundtracks of all time. And music ceased to be the same again.
Song: ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’
Of course, I remember the day I sang for Roja! I was just 20 and people would refer to me as ‘Papa’. I had relocated to Chennai just a year before, on the insistence of Raja sir. I had already sung a couple of jingles for Rahman back then.
‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ was recorded one evening after Arjunan master called me to sing. He told me the song was for Mani Ratnam’s new film, and that it was going to be Rahman’s debut. At the studio, Rahman’s mother explained the lyrics to me. I took it down in Malayalam and then Rahman sir played the track to me on his harmonium.
They told me that the song was about a girl like me singing about her wishes. The character in the film was supposed to be around my age; so it didn’t require any special effects from my side to make the song sound different. I fell in love with the tune and sang it with all my heart.
When the film released and was subsequently telecast on TV, I remember getting several congratulatory phone calls. I was too young to understand the business side of it, but the song’s popularity was widespread, and I would feel very happy whenever someone complimented the song.
Raja sir christened me Minmini, but I became famous because of Rahman. The song became a part of my name and I’ve always felt proud of that.
Song: ‘Kaadhal Rojave’ and ‘Rukkumani Rukkamani’
My good friend, Dileep at that time, was chosen as the music composer. It was a turning point in the music arena of the Indian film industry. The dubbed version of Roja itself was very successful; every song went on to become a hit overnight.
I’d never seen such a small studio in my life until then. The recording equipment was threadbare and the voice cubicle was small. When I first heard the music track of ‘Kaadhal Rojave’, I was awestruck. It was original and different from all the music compositions of that time. I was so happy to see Dileep as a composer, especially since I had known him from when he was just seven. His father, Shekhar, was instrumental in getting me my first break in Malayalam films. The days when Dileep was a young musician, I saw him almost every day. He was part of the band of music composers Raj-koti, and they were recording in my studio.
He was a little hesitant to teach me the ‘Kaadhal Rojave’ song, but I convinced him to. I sing the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi versions of ‘Kaadhal Rojave’ in my concerts even today. Rahman might have gone on to become a top composer and won many awards, but the best part about him is that he is the same humble, wonderful human being.
Song: ‘Kaadhal Rojave’ and ‘Pudhu Vellai Mazhai’
I had already sung a lot of jingles for Rahman sir and distinctly remember his ‘thumbs up’ after I recorded ‘Pudhu Vellai Mazhai’. For the film, I first sang the humming part of ‘Kaadhal Rojave’.
Even when I was singing jingles for him, I knew that he was extremely talented. Rahman had this way of conveying so much, even in those 30 seconds. His working style too was very different. He would give us the structure for the song and make us sing many variations. At times, there would be nothing else but the track and the shruti and he would programme it later.
I was quite close to his family and remember singing the chorus for ‘Tamizha Tamizha’ with his sisters. He was so young and I had this brotherly affection for him. More than anything else, I wanted him to succeed.
Roja was a totally new-sounding album and I was curious to see how the audience would accept it. Back then, when I used to sing in other places, people would speak about him like he was a ‘one-film wonder’. It was very tough for a lot of people to accept him.
At that time, his studio had a small hall and voice room. Of course, it has become much bigger now. I went there recently along with my daughter Shweta, and just being there made me emotional. I can’t believe that it has been 25 years.
Song: ‘Tamizha Tamizha’
I met Dileep for the first time when he’d come to Bombay to record a jingle. At that time, he told me he’d listened to my ghazals and that he wanted me to sing a song for his first film with Mani Ratnam. I knew Mani sir’s work and liked the track that Dileep played for me. I came down to Madras and recorded the song at his studio. I usually write my lyrics in Devanagiri and sing the song. I remember recording my song for Roja vividly; lyricist Vairamuthu sir was sitting next to me and reciting the lyrics to me. When I wrote ‘Tamizha Tamizha’ in Devanagiri, he was scandalised! “Ennaya idhu, Tamizha Tamizha solrenga… ivar Hindi la ezhudaraar,”he remarked. But then, things worked out fine and the song came out beautifully.
When I saw the song finally, I was really disappointed. It came during the end credits, and everyone was walking out of the theatre when it was playing out. The most interesting thing is that the lyrics actually lend itself to a marching song, but the tune was like a lullaby. That was Rahman’s touch.