Mera Naam Joker (Raj Kapoor, 1970)
Regarded as Raj Kapoor’s most ambitious, personal project, Mera Naam Joker (My Name Is Joker) is a sad, troubling film in many ways. Putting to one side the fact that personally, I think clowns are creepy and weird,
there was a lot that was unexpectedly vexing about this circus tale. I had expected – from the man reknowned for being one of India’s greatest showmen – glitter and glamour, a circus extravaganza to gel with the stories I had read that making the film took years and buckets of money, the infamous opening credit proclaiming a cast of thousands, and Raj Kapoor’s notoriously meticulous eye for detail this time attuned keenly to directing a film that was – according to just about every source ever – pretty much the story of his life.
Instead, Mera Naam Joker is a drawn-out, exceedingly melancholy film, which is a nice way of saying the narrative moves at a glacial pace and is A BIT OF A DOWNER, at least until the incredibly incongruous WTF end. (SPOILER ALERT: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?
I had expected all the way through the film that Raju had called his past lovers to watch his last performance because he was sick and knew he was dying – there’s a line in there somewhere that suggests this is the case – and that at the end he would die onstage in front of an audience, AS WAS FORESHADOWED BY THE TRAGIC, AWFUL WAY HIS FATHER ALSO DIED. This would actually be in line with the whole rest of the film, and is apparently actually how Raj Kapoor wanted to end it. WELL DUH, it’s only kind of obvious ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE FILM….but then we get this weird...anticlimax. I don’t know why – did outside pressures force Raj Kapoor to change the ending or did he have a change of heart?).
Mera Naam Joker is actually a masterpiece though. For all those who say it’s indulgent and overblown and an epic folly, there are those who will recognise the uncomfortable truths and sadnesses that are portrayed with uncanny accuracy and poignancy.
This is the first Raj Kapoor film I have ever seen – and it makes me feel so sad for him, and his family, if this is how he really feels about showbiz life.
This film, at certain points, is nearly unbearably heartbreaking, and Raj Kapoor – presumably playing a version of himself – is just riveting to watch - I can see, very easily, why he is so beloved as a performer, and a creative...errr...creator, I guess, in general. There's substance to this film, a challenging of conventions and accepted wisdom about the mainstream film industry - and maybe it's just the romantic in me, but I admire the courage it takes to do that, to have creative convictions and to stick to them.
There’s something in the Kapoor genes, evidently, because the charisma is obvious in a very, very young Rishi Kapoor, who plays 16 year old Raju in the first chapter of the film. Rishi is both adorable and utterly heartbreaking as the clumsy, exuberant, intensely lovelorn teenager.
He won an award for this, technically his first major film performance (before his launch proper in Bobby) – though due to his youth he was still regarded as a child actor.
In fact, during filming, he was secretly pulled out of school so many times for shooting he was expelled, and Raj Kapoor had to persuade the school to let Rishi back in, from then on only filming Rishi’s segments on weekends and school holidays.
Divided into three ‘chapters’, the story of Mera Naam Joker follows Raju, a simple, large-hearted man who realises at a tender age that he is destined to follow in his (dead) father’s footsteps and be a clown: his life’s calling is to entertain. Raju lives to make people happy – but what the film really explores is at what personal cost does being “The Entertainer” come? (hint: a lifetime of loneliness and disappointment and sacrifice and general suckiness when people you love repeatedly let you down and fail to reward your endless giving with anything. YEP. It’s a fun life, being an entertainer, apparently).
The film opens with an elderly Raju inviting the loves of his life to come and witness his final circus performance, a seemingly pointed, poignant skit in which Raju the clown is a patient whose heart is “too big for the world”. Raju’s giant dil is removed from his chest, continuing to swell larger and larger until it bursts, shattering into hundreds of mirrored pieces that reflect the faces of Raju’s previous loves, prompting Raju to reflect on his life in a three hour long flashback – the entire film.
Each chapter of the film explores a different failed love affair in Raju’s life, showing how Raju repeatedly and guilelessly gives his heart to women whom he ultimately cannot be with for various reasons.
As a naïve schoolboy he is smitten with his teacher (Simi Garewal) who sees him as a child incapable of adult passions and emotions; later as an adult he joins the circus and falls in love with a Russian trapeze artist (Ksiena Rabiankina) who is only appearing with the Indian troupe for a short time – neither of them speaks the other’s language or can freely visit the other’s country, so their “fairytale” romance is doomed from the start; then finally he becomes embroiled in a relationship with a younger woman, Meena (Padmini) who has ambitions to be a film star, and who uses who and what she needs to achieve her goal – Raju is only useful to her as long as no-one more helpful to her career aspirations comes along.
Basically – Mera Naam Joker is (despite the title) clearly not a film you watch for laughs. Ever hear the expression “the tears of the clown”? This film = that. Totally. Raju is a character who meanders, lonely, through his life, wanting desperately to connect with and bring joy to the unhappy world around him; he gives and gives and gives, because his heart is bigger than the world. And he gets nothing in return. His job is to make people laugh, so he can never be seen to cry; the most heartbreaking, awful scene SPOILER ALERT is when his mother has literally JUST died and he gets pushed back out onstage and told to make the audience laugh because the show must go on. Raj Kapoor’s anguish when circus manager Mahendra Singh (played by Dharmendra) tells him to go back onstage is truly gutting;
it turns grotesque when he channels that grief into his ‘comedy performance’ onstage,
wailing for his maa and crying exaggerated comedy clown tears. I know a lot of actors, and this scene probably hit the closest to home: performing for a living can be fucked up. Performers can be fucked up.
The film is really kind of depressing like that, and largely so when you know that this is the project that Raj Kapoor – dubbed “The Great Showman” and revered for being an eternal entertainer – nearly bankrupted himself for (Randhir Kapoor later revealed that his father nearly sold RK Studios to recover the losses from Mera Naam Joker). It took several years to film, cost a FORTUNE and then the original print was nearly 5 hours long, the first Indian film to be screened with 2 intermissions. Add the unusual, depressing theme (entertainers give everything but are rewarded with NOTHING, gee thanks audience) and what Raj Kapoor got was a meticulously crafted film he regarded as intensely personal, a project revealing how he felt about his LIFE’S WORK….and it was a huge flop, plunging RK Studios into financial strife, marking the end of Raj Kapoor’s acting career and by all accounts breaking his heart.
What breaks MY heart is that even though apparently EVERYONE IN THE FREAKING WORLD knows how important this film was to Raj Kapoor, flop or not, and knowing how respected he is TO THIS DAY in the industry, apparently nobody cared much about accurately preserving the film that was closest to his heart.
When I was watching my (Shemaroo) dvd of Mera Naam Joker, I was puzzled and dismayed at several points by GLARINGLY OBVIOUS edits – in the middle of songs, and in one awful case, in a seemingly hugely significant scene. Having read all over the internet that the film’s running time was supposed to be 3 hours 44 minutes, it was kind of disturbing when my dvd copy came to an end after…3 hours and 4 minutes.
SOMEONE HACKED THIS FILM TO PIECES, and not with any finesse or discretion or skill. A quick search on the internet uncovered this useful thread which – if you are planning on watching the film, or are saddled, like me, with the Shemaroo print of the film – I URGE YOU TO READ. Not only does it explain at least TWO VITAL SCENES that are hacked out of the shorter print of the film – it gives an overall picture of just how lazy the approach to preserving the director’s “vision” was, since the edits clearly affect the narrative. As a film fan, this makes me REALLY UPSET.
It’s well worth watching this film though – even if you can only get the hacked up version, Raj Kapoor’s unconventional, melancholic vision is strong enough to survive the brutal edits.