Sometimes, for whatever reason, films flop at the box office. And years later, a few of those films rise, like a phoenix from the ashes, to retrospective greatness. Mera Naam Joker is one of those films.
Any fan of Raj Kapoor must see Mera Naam Joker. It is his magnum opus, semi-autobiographical, with elements of the whimsical charm of his older films going hand in hand with the passion and sensuality of his later films. It is romantic, it is comedic, but above all, it is tragic.
“Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan” is the first song of the film, and ultimately the most important. Sung by the Joker Raju (Raj Kapoor) to a circus crowd, as well as his three former loves (Simi Garewal, Kseniya Ryabinkina, and Padmini), it translates in English to “Live here, die here”: the ultimate motto of the showman. In the course of Bollywood history, those four words are among the most important.
I saw the 183-minute Shemaroo version, cut down from the original length of 255 minutes (though I hear there’s a five-hour version somewhere). I have a strange feeling I’m missing things due to those cuts, so context may be off. (Editor’s note: I found this thread comparing differences between the versions and have discovered that I have missed A LOT. Slightly fuming that Shemaroo cut it down so much, and now frothing at the mouth–thankfully not literally–with the desire to watch the entire thing.)
For now, here are my thoughts on Mera Naam Joker, peppered with extra insights from Raj Kapoor’s personal life from the terrific book The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema by Madhu Jain.
Spoilers to follow after the break.
Raju’s father was a clown. Raju’s father loved being a clown. He enjoyed making people laugh and died for that laughter, falling off a trapeze to his demise. Raju’s mother hands her son his father’s clown doll, and he clutches it excitedly, looking down at the small painted face with wonder.
“I will be a joker, too,” young Raju tells his mother, who slaps him and tearfully implores him to choose a better life for himself.
That was in “reel life.” In real life, Prithviraj Kapoor, then an accomplished actor, wanted a life outside of stage and screen for his first son Raj as well. But the young Kapoor was not a good student, earning failing grades, and went behind the camera. He soon became one of Bollywood’s youngest directors, and a star was born.
I’ve read in some places that Mary the teacher is a metaphor for Nargis, who taught Raj the ropes as he entered the film industry (she was a relative veteran when he became a screen actor), but I believe Part I is more straightforward than that. In her book, Madhu Jain wrote that
“Raj Kapoor went into a big sulk when his father decided to move the family to Calcutta. He was so attached to this teacher that he told his parents he would rather stay in the school hostel than pack up and leave. During his last few days at the school, he would bring her flowers every day. The parting was tearful.”
Thus, I believe Simi Garewal’s role in Mera Naam Joker is an avatar of this early love of Raj’s life.
The pain of a first love at a young age is perfectly expressed by Rishi Kapoor, Raj’s second son. This was Rishi’s first film role, and he is absolutely sublime in the part of a teenage boy bewildered by this sudden sexual longing for his teacher. He feels incredibly guilty: he sees her changing on the banks of a river during a school vacation, has a dream of her naked, and is ashamed, rushing to the school chapel to confess his sin. Mary sees him, and consoles him. “Children don’t sin,” she says soothingly.
“I’m not a child,” 16-year-old Raju snaps back. The ghosts of his erotic dream linger in his eyes.
Young Raju takes every opportunity to express his love for his teacher. He brings her flowers and keeps her company. He even gives her his clown doll, asking her to keep it safe. She promises she will.
But with first love comes first heartache. Mary is engaged to David (Manoj Kumar), who tips the teacher off about her student’s infatuation. (I’m not quite sure how it had flown over her head thus far.) David also encourages Raju to become a joker, as the child excels at making others laugh.
“Jokers do nothing for themselves.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) “Only for others.”
“You know who is the biggest joker?” David asks? Raju shakes his head. David points to the sky. “Bhagwan?” Raju exclaims. David nods. God is the biggest “joker” by his definition: He does nothing for Himself, only for others.
David, sensitive to the depth of Raju’s feelings for Mary, asks the boy to be his best man at his wedding. Raju accepts. At the same time, the boy has been expelled from school for working as a joker and going to school simultaneously. Apparently work & studies cannot go hand-and-hand at that institution.
Before moving away with his ailing mother, who seeks treatment elsewhere, a visibly emotional Raju plays best man at Mary and David’s wedding. After the ceremony, David allows the boy to kiss his wife on the cheek, then hands Raju a wrapped present. He opens it: it’s his clown doll. The newlyweds depart, and Raju’s first love affair is over.
As a young boy, Raj Kapoor was teased for being overweight, as Raju is in the movie. They both were unsure of themselves yet covered up their insecurities with humor, seeking to make others laugh. Raj Kapoor was born to be a joker. Where would he take that talent?
This is the most wistful part of the movie. Raju’s affair with the Russian trapeze artist, sweet, funny, and pure, is love in its best form. Even when Marina departs, it is not tragic; it merely brings about some nostalgia on Raju’s part. Perhaps it is an allusion to the early days of Raj Kapoor and Nargis’ relationship: before Mother India, before Sunil Dutt, when everything was right…
Years and years later, Raju works hard to support his sickly mother. She believes he works in a shop, but he is actually a clown, entertaining children on the streets. Her heart would break if she knew he had taken up his father’s profession.
In the vein of being “at the right place at the right time,” through a series of comic mishaps, Raju ends up with the Gemini Circus, run by Mahendra (Dharmendra). There, he meets Marina, a gymnast part of a traveling Soviet circus that is visiting India. There’s an obvious language barrier – the two try to remedy it by using Hindi-Russian dictionaries throughout – but they soon fall for each other, and all seems right with the world.
Deep down, however, nearly everyone knows this relationship is short-fused. Love over a foreign border is incredibly difficult to sustain. The exception to this rule is Raju’s mother, who is impatient to see him bring home a bride. She is placated when he introduces her to Marina, finding her wonderful, but then heartbroken when Marina tells her – in Russian – that she cannot possibly stay. Marina hands her a wrapped package and tearfully departs.
It is the second time Raju’s doll has been returned. But what is more significant this time is the wrapping: it is a circus poster with Raju’s face plastered prominently on it. His mother is shocked to see it, and makes her way down to the theater for that night’s performance.
In a sick twist of fate, she sees Raju doing the same trapeze exercises that killed his father. Horrified, she watches as his hands slip and he plummets–caught safely by a netting. He locks eyes with her and is equally horrified, but tells her in a firm voice that this was his destiny. She collapses in her seat, most likely instantly dead. Her heart has been shattered by the truth.
“The show must go on,” Mahendra tells a devastated Raju as they stand by his mother’s body. He must go on with his clown act.
In what I believe is the most heartbreaking scene of the film–and maybe one of the most heartbreaking in all cinema–Raju expresses his grief of his mother’s death through humorous dramatics and pantomime. He cries fountains of fake tears, he runs around screaming “Maa”, and he sings his signature “Aye Bhai Zara Dekh Ne Chalo” song with interludes of a slow, keening melody. It is everything the movie is about: to provide humor even through the darkest of times. The Russian artists know this, and watch on with tears in their eyes and rolling down their cheeks (much as I was crying watching the performance).
At the end of it all, he plays a small violin to the empty seat his mother occupied just minutes before, and imagines he is completely alone in the arena. The whole thing is a strange, sad scene, and Raj Kapoor executes it perfectly.
Soon after, Marina takes her leave of Raju, leaving on an Air India flight. As young Raju watched Mary leave with a wistful smile, so does adult Raju in this scene. “She reminded me of an old song,” he says, and “Awaara Hoon” plays as the plane departs.
In my eyes, Part II represents Raj Kapoor’s nostalgia of the past, which may have treated him better than the present. In one scene, there are scenes from Awaara and Shree 420 played as he does a streetside singing clown act. There are constant references to looking back, to remembering. The whole thing–besides the death of his mother–is much lighter fare than the rest of the movie.
The darkness comes in Part III.
The third part of the movie is a tale of love interwoven with untruthfulness and deceit. Raju leaves the circus, presumably shortly after the Soviet performers head home, and begins to wander the streets, aimless. He goes to throw his clown doll in the sea, but an eager dog leaps into the waves and drags it back to him.
The dog, named Moti, belongs to Meenu, a young street urchin with a penchant for outbursts and knife-wielding. Meenu and Raju strike up a friendship and put together a footpath circus, complete with tricks performed by them and by Moti.
Their bliss is short-lived. In an incident during their circus performance where Meenu’s shirt is torn, nearly baring a breast, Raju discovers that his partner is, in fact, a girl. (This comes after Meenu had slapped Raju, warning him never to call him a girl after Raju had commented on the softness of Meenu’s hands.)
“Liar,” Raju hisses at his partner, disgusted.
Yet there is a reason for Meenu’s cross-dressing. When she came to Bombay, parentless Meena had a hard time fending for herself as a girl. So she donned the garb of a young male and roamed the city, becoming fierce and streetwise. It is an avatar she is loath to shed: as a girl, she believes she loses strength.
Raju gives her a sari he buys for her and departs, but the two soon make up. They fall in love and become traveling qawwali performers. Meena by now has embraced her femininity and is wearing women’s clothing. They are invited to perform at a large theater, and at one of the performances is none other than actor-producer Rajendra Kumar (played by–who else–Rajendra Kumar), who is immediately taken by Meena.
Meena agrees to act in his films, and the two begin a professional–and maybe even personal–relationship. Raju is heartbroken to let her go but knows he cannot stand in the way of her success. She has, in his eyes, “used him” to gain fame. She has betrayed him. Could this reel-life betrayal be an allusion to a real-life betrayal?
Years after Nargis walked out of R.K. Studios for good, Raj Kapoor continued to feel betrayed by her departure. “In private, he often babbled on about what he termed ‘a great betrayal,'” wrote Madhu Jain. “It wasn’t an amicable goodbye.”
The departure of Meena from Raju’s life smacks of an allusion to Nargis leaving Raj to go work on Mother India, which ended up becoming one of her most notable performances, if not the most notable.
So who does Rajendra Kumar represent in this little game? I’m not quite sure. Maybe Mehboob Khan, the man who orchestrated Mother India, or Sunil Dutt, who later married Nargis after rescuing her from that infamous fire. Whomever he represents, he is the figure that takes Raj’s love away, and he is left dejected once again.
“Jane kahan gaye woh din,” Raju sings plaintively, clutching his clown doll, the only constant in his turbulent life, to his chest. The doll, like himself, has been received and rejected by the women he has loved in life. And we see the Joker sing his pain, arms outstretched in expression, mouth painted in a grotesque smile.
Something else interesting of note is that it’s never the women who return the dolls to Raju, it is someone else. Maybe Raj’s encounters with betrayal all involved a middleman of some kind, and he was expressing this here.
The flashbacks end, and we return to the circus, where Raju is performing his last show. His women look on, tears in their eyes as they realize the inner pain their former lover is suffering. Madhu Jain writes in her book that Raj Kapoor wanted to end the film with Raju’s death onstage, much as the Joker’s father died onstage. Whether through the censor board or through a last-minute change of direction, the movie ends…
Well, it ends on an unsettling note, almost a cliffhanger. The End, it says, but above that phrase in slightly smaller font appears Postively Not. What could this mean? Another reference to that phrase “The show must go on?” Or alluding to the fact that despite his setbacks, despite his heartbreaks, Raj Kapoor would continue to entertain?
Whatever the case might be with the ending, the story of Mera Naam Joker at the box office had a tremendously sad denouement. It flopped. It failed. Some cite the great length of the film; others, the non-family friendly plot. And besides the financial failure, the rejection of his magnum opus broke Raj Kapoor’s heart. Many say he was never the same after the losses sustained.
In recent years, after Raj Kapoor’s death in 1988, the film has re-surged in popularity, with most film critics calling it a masterpiece. And a masterpiece it is. Juggling love, death, comedy, and heartbreak, Mera Naam Joker transcends most films of its time.