Joker style characters, traditionally in Shakespeare plays were included not solely for the purpose of comic relief, but often to be the all-knowing persona, almost like the underdog of the plays.
Whilst Joaquin Phoenix’s character in the Warner Bros film is not a positive one, he delivers the performance of a lifetime and the movie itself raises some important social points.
However, after watching the film, it made me think about Bollywood’s frequent representation of calamitous characters behind the guise of a smile.
On many occasions, such personalities are victims of social injustice, ostracism and unpleasant familial circumstances.
As such, writer/philosopher Mokokoma Mokhonoana says: “The smiles of the unhappiest are often the widest.”
Whilst this quote is profound, the films Joker, Khal Nayak and Mera Naam Joker seem to have essayed this very notion through various circumstances.
Disregarded by society, failed comedian Arthur Fleck with mental health issues begins a slow dissent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as The Joker.
Initially, the viewer feels sympathetic towards the protagonist. Seeing him getting beaten up, mocked by on-goers for being unique is a heart-wrenching visual.
Then observing him take care of his sick mother in a worn-down apartment, offers an eye-opening perspective on how deluded but misunderstood this individual is.
However, as the movie progresses and as the character gradually changes our disgust towards him begins to develop.
Director Todd Phillips showcases him to be a victim of social injustice and makes a strong and sharp comment on society.
Scenes where he sneaks into an affluent screening of Charlie Chaplin or being attacked by well-to-do men, he is made to be an utter misfit in society.
We get a sense of his voice being unheard of, even with his therapist, showcases how the lower-class are always shrugged off.
The dialogue: “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realise it’s a comedy” perhaps clarifies how Fleck laughs at his misfortune and due to this reason, is compelled to become the infamous villain he is.
Having said that, though, his actions are deplorable to the highest degree and nothing can ever justify the infliction of pain on another human being.
Khal Nayak (1993)
Anti-hero Ballu Balram (Sanjay Dutt) might not have been a clown, but social injustice, neglect and poverty are what leads such a naive young boy to become a dreaded criminal and ‘terrorist’.
Balram’s actions are attributed to issues like unemployment and how his father had to suffer because of his honesty and principals.
Subsequently, These issues affect Ballu’s psyche which is further explored in the song ‘Nayak Nahin Khal Nayak Hoon Main’ through the words:
“Main Bhi sharaafat se jeeta Magar… Mujhko shareefon se lagata tha dar. Sabko pata tha main kamazor hoon, Main is liye Aaj Kuch aur hoon.”
These lyrics convey how Ballu would happily live a noble life like others.
However, his naivety, blindness towards wealth and a better life leads him to a destructive and detrimental path.
The video itself shows Ballu Balram smiling, dancing energetically whilst boldly proclaiming how he’s a villain and everyone around him keeps addressing him as one.
Given that both Sanjay Dutt and Joaquin Phonenix have endured some tragic circumstances in their personal lives… Especially drug/alcohol abuse, suffering personal losses and moments of poverty.
Maybe due to these reasons, only actors like Dutt and Phoenix can essay such layered roles.
Mera Naam Joker (1970)
Raj Kapoor’s poignant masterpiece chronicles the life of Raju (played by Mr Kapoor himself) who is a joker, a clown.
As his story unfolds in three chapters, from childhood to the circus to the streets, he must make people laugh and be happy, regardless of how unhappy he is within or the tragedy he is fronted with.
The joker forms Raju’s identity and he is constantly reminded of this – from childhood days where his teacher’s fiance (Manoj Kumar) initiates this idea, leading to the present day ringmaster (Dharmendra) who convinces him that “the show must go on.”
Similarly, the “smile and always put on a happy face” dialogue reflects the dichotomy of Arthur being in a profession to make people laugh but is yet living a grief-stricken life
Theoretically, excluding the crimes and mental health aspect, Joker somewhat mirrors the Raju character in Mera Naam Joker.
The key difference between both films is that Raju melancholically accepts his fate by living within the system.
However, Arthur is an angry and disturbed individual who refuses to be confined to the paradigms of society.
In fact, in Mera Naam Joker, the line “the show must go on” symbolises moving on in life regardless of how our circumstances are.
Whereas Robert De Niro’s catchphrase in Joker “that’s life” represents how we must compromise in life and accept the system, even if it is wrong.
It is very interesting to see how clowns are incorporated in both Hollywood and Bollywood to showcase life journeys and societal structures.
There are interlinking and instrumental connections in all the films. In Joker, Fleck is compelled by society to become a clown, when this simply begins as a profession.
Similarly, Raju in Mera Naam Joker is also constantly reminded that his goal in life is to solely make people laugh, overlooking his personal miseries.
Both films generally convey that being a clown is certainly no laughing matter.
In a similar vein, Ballu Balram in Khal Nayak (despite not being a ‘clown’) is trapped into putting on a brave face as a villain and concealing his vulnerability, his yearning of living a dignified life.
However, Joker and Khal Nayak shows how sufferers of social injustice and tragic circumstances live a path of destruction, although Ballu Balram manages to redeem himself.
While Mera Naam Joker, on the other hand, symbolises the acceptance of one’s life and facing it with a smile.
Regardless, the Joker’s actions are unacceptable, though the good thing is that the movie does not glorify or justify it.
In fact, I find it fascinating to understand the origins of what compels a person to become a sinister being. After all, there is usually a reason why things happen in life.
But having said that, the film highlights that not all villains are born evil and raises further questions who the real tyrant is… Society? circumstances? or maybe both?