Mera Naam Joker: too big? Too much?
The cinematographic monument Mera naam Joker, which was directed, produced and starred by Raj Kapoor took 6 years to complete, cost millions and was a catastrophic flop when it came out in 1972 (see the wikipedia page). No wonder: the first version was more than 5 hours long! And even in its present length of 3 hours 44 minutes, it has two intermissions. Each of its three main episodes could almost be a full feature. Yet the movie has everything one could wish: Raj Kapoor at the steering wheel, a crowd of great actors and beautiful girls, romance, humour, great moments of showmanship: so why the disappointment? On Imdb somebody comes up with this explanation: “This supposedly autobiographical epic tale from Raj Kapoor broke all film-making conventions of '70s India. It was too long, there was no constant heroine and the hero never won.” Indeed, the movie is probably too raj-kapooresque for its own good. It seems it must be an essential piece of incriminating evidence in the enduring blogosphere RK bashing… or is it? Well, here goes, let’s see!
It opens on a clever piece of self-promotional derision which probably contains the key to the movie’s enigma: some important people, whom at first we now nothing about, are welcomed to the first seats of a circus and when the show begins, we are told in a grandiloquent manner that this is the final show of the company’s well-known clown, Raju. And sure enough, he soon pops out of a heart which represents his love of the stage, of life… and perhaps of himself. But a real funny scene follows: a bunch of hysterical surgeons, as clownish as Raju himself, rush to explain that his heart is too big, he has to undergo an operation, otherwise he will die! He protests, but they drag him to the operation table and in an accelerated Chaplinesque way, fight and fuss around his reclining body before uniting to pull out (with a huge pair of tweezers) the swollen heart. All this while, the VIP onlookers have been seen to wonder at the allegory, which of course is clear: the film is going to be an exploration of Raju’s overgrown heart; we are going to be shown what it costs to love too much. But before we enter the movie per se, let’s listen to Raju’s answer. It sums up both his mission as a clown, and the ambiguity of freedom vs determinism. Whose fault is it if he has loved to excess?
It’s never a simple task to tell one’s own story. By definition, one is still alive when the task is attempted. So even if one starts with the beginning, childhood, then youth, etc. one is quickly assailed by questions such as: do I say this? Do I leave that unsaid? What will “he” or “she” or “they” think if I dare speak about this event, and what if I don’t? Very cleverly, Raj Kapoor has chosen an avatar of himself, the joker, to deflect what might have been too personal in the story of his life; he has also decided to focus on only three, symbolical, episodes; and unless one knows his real biography, it’s difficult to say whether these episodes even refer to real relationships. Clearly though, there is a progression. We go from aching initiation (Mary), to pure love (Marina), and finally to deceitful seduction (Meena). In itself, this sequence contains a pessimistic teaching: love and happiness do not go hand in hand; one cannot both have a heart and master it. The fact that RK has built his film around these three women also reveals both his strength and his weakness. Any true hero would have been faithful to one only. But the realism of these three figures gives the movie a power that legend doesn’t have. An undercurrent of confession lurks beneath the archetypal characters. Besides, which man, even if happily married all along to one single wife, has loved only one woman in his life? (The same works for women of course). For all its allegorical dimension, Mera naam Joker is thus founded on serious stuff: life itself.
First icon in the gallery: Mary (Simi Garewal, who cannot act, but this won’t be held against her), the perfect teacher of love. When she arrives in Raju’s class one day, they’re all prepared: this replacement teacher is going to be lampooned big time. But she enters the room coolly, and upon looking at her caricature on the board, says: is this me? Every representative of the male sex present in the room only has to look at her, and then back to the board to admit there’s a huge difference… And she laughs them all into exquisite submission. From then on, a slightly podgy Raju (young Rishi Kapoor) will pour all his love on this not so old educator, just because she has a certain sense of justice and believes everyone should be treated equal, whether lean or fat. The fatso will grow to become the best student in the class because nobody else has ever paid attention to him, and this beautiful teacher will become his guru: simple, isn’t it? Well, only on the surface. Because there are enough signs from Raj Kapoor the string-puller at the back that whatever is presented as a coming-of-age story was in fact (perhaps) a more sombre story. At least for young Raju, if not for Mary herself (whoever she is hiding). Look for instance at this picture of her wedding:
Isn’t this almost panicky glance, half-hidden behind the white veil, the sign of a secret which young Raju cannot fathom (or openly admit to)? His question, “What must I do?”: who is actually asking it? Isn’t it Raj Kapoor himself, confronted to existential choices for which his film is a kind of answer? Shouldn’t we understand this interrogation as passing through all the film? What must I do if life and love have made me who I am? Should I hide what I think is most magnificent and transcendent for a man in this world: the love for women and their beauty, just because religion, morals and propriety oblige us to hide it? Of course we have to respect women themselves, their intimacy, their feelings, their own desires. But we owe them the truth which their social role denies them so often. Is it wrong to suggest that a young teacher, the moment she’s getting married, feels an attraction for one of her students? What should I decide (RK might have been saying), knowing that my films are going to reach millions and that what I say, perhaps too daringly, will remain in the public’s memory and shape the educational standards of the next generations? In fact this question of choice or decision is recurrent in the movie:
Raju himself, and many other characters, are faced with the moral question of which way to choose or which decision to take. In this sense, Mera naam joker is an adult’s movie, and it perhaps isn’t very surprising that it flopped: as a rule, audiences come to watch pictures with a child’s mind: they want clearcut options of what is good and bad, they want goodies and villains, reward and punishment. The kind of complexity which is apparent in the first episode, with Mary the temptress teacher and initiator to desire, is hardly meant for them.
The second episode with Marina is morally less difficult; it’s more in the aesthetic field. It owes its attraction to Kseniya Ryabinkina, an actual Russian ballet dancer from the Bolshoi, whom RK probably got to know because of his huge success in the USSR, where hits like his Awaara were appreciated. She’s a Madonna type beauty, a Leonardo, with her hair neatly parted on each side, and her wistful airs from a faraway North. Her charm also comes from her ignorance of Hindi, and the slow progress she makes throughout the episode with her funny accent (it was great, I could understand everything she said! I mean, in hindi, not in Russian!).
It’s clear she represents ideal love; she’s an archetype for a love so wonderful and simple that it somehow doesn’t belong to this Earth. Otherworldliness was clear in her job: Marina is a flying trapezist, she swings and jumps far too high for a clumsy clown like Raju to bond with her. Yet the story makes her notice him and, like the legend of the worm in love with a star, she befriends him and caresses him like only angels can. It is within her story that Raj Kapoor focuses on the fourth feminine figure of his film, Raju’s mother. Of course like all mothers, this one desires her son to marry and continue the cycle of life. A lot of good feelings there, perhaps too many for the movie’s good, but well, this is RK’s sensitive chord. He allows himself to show his self-pity in such a way that it’s almost painful. We have to watch Raju moping, Raju whining, Raju’s dejected looks…I wish RK hadn’t let himself become overwhelmed by this sentimentality, and I wonder whether he indulged in it because he thought it would make people love him more, or whether he wanted to expose his fragility and thus get rid of it?
Nevertheless, what Marina does in the story, the figure she cuts, all this is almost nearly always merry and fun. In spite of the mother scenes, with all its crying and imploring, and in spite of Raju’s self-pitying moments, everything that happens when she is there is bathed in an optimistic light which makes the rest of the film look sombre in comparison. No wonder Raju is so desperate when she leaves. No wonder he is so nostalgic (it is during this episode that we are shown extracts of Shree 420 and Awaara): it is 1972 and for the man he is now, the road is more downhill than uphill. His great successes are behind him, and the kind of love, the kind of fulfilment embodied by Marina belongs to the past. At 48, he cannot hope to find love again.
I don’t know whether she represents somebody in particular, Nargis for example, with whom RK had an affair; I think I don’t care. Of course if it was clearer, it would have to be taken into consideration. But I believe Marina’s more a construction, an idealization which Raj Kapoor has used in order to represent one aspect of love, and of his loving soul. She comes from Russia: he could easily have imagined that his well-known screen persona had burnt itself in the heart of an innocent and dreamy dievouchka, and from there imagine Marina’s character. Apart from being an angel (the airborne and sauntering Marina leaves on board a plane in a very insistent scene), and a fairy – that’s what Raju’s mother calls her,- Marina is Raju’s poetess and interpreter. She literally translates his message to the world, and makes him understand that, like Jesus leaving his disciples and telling them that if he doesn’t go, how will they receive the Holy Spirit, she has to leave him in order for him to continue his mission as clown and more than clown:
Marina’s love belongs not to earthly desire, but to the aspiration towards purity and elevation that we all harbour in our lives. She is the visiting angel which each of us, perhaps, has been lucky to meet once, even if only fleetingly, she is the twinkling star which we can always look up and watch and who can inspire us to be better human beings. After she leaves, Raju and Ustad are observing the departing plane, and Raju, visibly aged and reminded at that moment of the famous song “Awaara hoon” (“my heart is filled with pain, but I wear a smile on my face”), looks straight at the camera and at us, perhaps to ask for forgiveness and compassion:
After Marina’s departure, Raju has left the circus, or at least that’s what we guess because he’s wandering alone aimlessly. He’s deserted the company of his fellow men, and he’s an orphan in more than one sense. The moment is ripe for his meeting with his last feminine figure, who nevertheless appears to him as a man, or rather as a boy. (We have to accept Raju’s delusion, because for us spectators, Padmini is so obviously - I was going to say gorgeously - feminine, even with her short hair, that we cannot mistake her for a boy!) This encounter is perhaps the most developed, the most meaningful and probably the deepest in terms of autobiographical content (could she represent Vijayanthimala, with whom RK had shot Sangam, and who, even if she denies it, probably had an affair with him). Meena’s story is a complete chronicle of illusion and delusion, of trust and betrayal, which could have justified a movie in itself. Raj Kapoor has portrayed it with consummate art, and including it in Mera naam joker has elevated it to a universality which leaves one wondering what were for him the links of life and the screen. Somehow we’re not so far from Guru Dutt and his meditation on their connection (see kaagaz ke phool). A sense of tragic nostalgia pervades both works.
So Raju meets a boy, called Minoo, and they enter a kind of contract: s/he has a dog, they could train it and start up a travelling circus sort of business. He’s a clown, s/he has a shack where they could live. Soon nevertheless this contract breaks down: Raju discovers Minoo is in fact Meena. He decides to leave her, but she tells him she loves him, and so they stay together. This time she plays feminine roles and is so successful that their little drama shows attract more and more people, among whom professionals who ask them to perform in real showrooms here and there around the country. Finally, one day, Meena is spotted by a cinema producer (Rajendra Kumar) in search for “new faces”: she must choose between her association with Raju and her dream of becoming a movie-star, idolized and famous, at last. The temptation is too strong, and she leaves him.
There is something profoundly pathetic in Meena’s episode; she genuinely loves and needs Raju, who tells her the truth about herself (“enter the world as your real self”, he says while gifting her a sari), yet she is manipulated by her ambition and thirst for self-accomplishment to the point that she will break his heart, a heart swollen from its love-disease. Inside her, a kind of devil was present from the start, and she has listened to it too much. At least this is what I believe Raj Kapoor is telling us. There is in some women (in men too, arguably, but in women it seems more catastrophic perhaps) a desire to use the beauty and power they have been given from above for their own personal use, and because they have so long and so constantly been deprived of the possibility, they somehow get their revenge on men this way. Such an interpretation of Meena’s attitude is perhaps too strong, but RK’s pessimistic attitude makes me say this nevertheless.
(this is the moment of revelation, the Kaagaz ke phool / ray of light moment when Meena becomes Paro!)
Naturally things could also have been disenchanted by Raju’s despair and diseased mind: he has been initiated to the intoxication of love and to women’s power, and this makes him a half-consenting victim. He falls into Meena’s ageless trap very easily; her charms operate on him only too easily! And Raj Kapoor delights at both showing them to us (it seems he’s saying: “look how adorable she was”), and denouncing them (“she’s like a devil, she’s impossible to resist”). RK possesses perhaps even more a Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde ambiguity as Meena herself! Here’s Meena in all her glory:
There’s even a picture where I fancy RK wanted her to appear almost snake-like, where she implores Raju with her tongue between her teeth:
Do you remember this scene? It’s when she wanders after him, alone in her close-fitting sari through the strangely empty and misty streets and in which, it seems, by her very appearance, she causes that extraordinary storm to happen. She first wanders solitary, and finally she finds Raju brooding inside one of the concrete pipes lying around their unfinished neighbourhood: but what a brilliant piece of cinema! It’s both expressionistic and oneiric, reminiscent of the scene of the Fall (Genesis 3) where Adam and Eve, after their sin, are chased away from the garden of Eden by a wrathful God and must seek protection against new forces with no other help than their own, hampered by their guilt and misery, and watched by the frightening new power of their conscience (here in the shape of an enormous eye):
There’s a drama in this scene which doesn’t seem to correspond to the story. After all, what has happened? Only Raju discovering Meena was in fact a woman… Why does he disappear like that? What is he escaping from? From love? Yes, but isn’t it as much Raj Kapoor himself as his clownish double who is running away? And if this is so, isn’t he making an autobiographical and retrospective statement about the love he has given, perhaps unwisely? Raj Kapoor multiplies, mirror-like, all his warnings and curses against the dangers of excessive love:
And at the same time, he underlines the various avatars in which Meena appears. Her transmutation from “uncut diamond” to priceless (media) jewel is used to warn his audience against the maya of feminine beauty for which he has, it seems, paid such a heavy price.
We are left, at the end of this long review, with the question: What’s a joker? Raj Kapoor fancied himself as a clown, a joker. He has his joker doll which he passes on to each of the feminine figures he meets in his life, but they all reject it. None of them will keep it. It’s difficult to say whether RK wants us to accept this as his destiny, or whether it’s a result of his unlucky starlit life. In one scene with David, Mary’s fiancé (1st episode), he suggests that “God is the greatest joker of all”. I don’t think we should take this assimilation to mean that RK seems himself as god on Earth (at one stage, he’s even “found guilty of being human”), but rather that what he has tried to do, luck and unluck put together, has been a divine mission, that of entertaining crowds through art and fun. Of course the difficulty of passing on this message about himself doesn’t quite merge with the actual entertainment. One doesn’t go to the cinema to have the director tell us, even through a namesake, what mission he thinks he has! So it’s logical MNJ didn’t have for the public the importance it had for RK himself. But being a joker carries also the sorry acknowledgment that RK might have been only that, nothing more… Women don’t want to become the partners of a clown, and perhaps Raj Kapoor’s disillusioned goodbye in the end is telling us that his star-studded path has in fact been more Hell than Heaven? Watch the film and decide for yourself.