1970- RK- film Mera Naam Joker’s colossal commercial failure had once pushed Raj Kapoor to the brink of bankruptcy and driven him to depression-filled drinking binges; but still he always claimed it to be his most favourite film! Even three decades later viewing this film in the cosy comforts of home-theatre, it is easy to understand why.
Like Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool and Raj Kapoor’s own earlier effort Aag (his very first film), Mera Naam Joker too can be viewed as one of the most intimate autobiographical films in the annals of Hindi cinema. This film was Raj’s bold attempt of show complexities of his showbiz life, through a circus clown’s eyes! His screen-portrayal as Joker Raju in Mera Naam Joker was certainly the closest Raj had ever come to sharing his personal world with the movie-goers. The creative experiment could have almost succeeded- had commercialism not invaded the project in midway!
The first Part: Raju’s school years
The film opens in a grand circus-arena where famous Joker Raju is performing for the last time. With his special invitees all seated amongst an expectant audience, Raju starts his final performance as a comic skit about the Joker’s big heart and its accidental break-up. Through this on-stage drama, actually he is talking about his own heart-breaks!
Soon a flashback takes us to Raju’s adolescent school years. Being a poor, fat boy in an expensive boarding school is not a happy experience- but Raju has kept himself going by assuming a perpetual ‘Joker’ identity. He likes to make others laugh- more to make himself acceptable to others. But arrival of a new school-teacher throws his small world into a tizzy. Contrary to his expectation of finding a grumpy old lady, the new teacher turns out to be a stunningly beautiful, ever-smiling young woman, who kindles never-before experienced emotions in Raju’s mind. His kind and considerate- and lovely looking ‘Madam’ becomes the only object of his adolescent thoughts. He cannot fathom those emotions and after accidentally watching her undress at a school picnic, he even starts to think that he has sinned! But the dreams come crashing down when Raju gets unfairly thrown out of the school and his teacher gets married to her boyfriend!
This first part of the film is perhaps the best-written, best-directed and best acted part. It is perhaps the first ever daringly ahead-of-times depiction of adolescent arousal of sexual desires in Hindi cinema. Rishi Kapoor is simply too good and too convincing as the young Raju. His plump good looks, deep blue eyes, palpably angry, confused and vulnerable persona (Main Abhi Bachcha Nahi Hoon!) and most importantly his tender adolescent age- all give his performance an utterly realistic feel. Simi Garewal as Raju’s favourite madam Mary and Manoj Kumar as Mary’s sensitive boy-friend David, who makes her understand the complexity of Raju’s emotions for her- are two memorable characters, playing key-role in Raju’s emotional journey.
It was Manoj Kumar who (at Raj Kapoor’s request!) re-wrote most of this first part after writer K.A. Abbas’s screenplay was found wanting at some places. He not only sensitively explains Raju’s sexual awakening but he also provides an insight into Raju’s ‘Joker’ philosophy. Raju is taking up this ‘Joker’ identity for definite reasons- on one hand he wants to touch the higher moral grounds of making others laugh, while being unhappy himself and on the other hand, it is simply his attempt to emulate his late father- who was a circus clown, who died with his laughing mask on!
Second Part : Raju joins circus
After the first intermission, we see an older Raju trying to make ends meet for himself and his old, ailing mother (Achala Sachdev). Not able to find any job, he finally decides to sneak into a circus- impersonating a Russian ring-master! Raju’s desperate, foolhardy act results in quite a chaotic spectacle, but the circus-owner Mahendra (Dharmedra) understands his passion and employs him in the circus. Slowly Raju works his way up the ladder to become the main Joker of the pack. In the process, he also endears himself to the visiting Russian trapeze artiste Maria (Kseniya Ryabinkina). Raju also falls in love with Maria and starts dreaming of marrying her- even taking her home to meet his sick mother. But once again, his romantic dreams come crashing down when Mahendra explains to him their impossibility- since Maria would soon be returning back to Russia with her troupe. The tragedy is just to worsen further-when Raju’s mother dies of shock after seeing her son fall off the trapeze during one of his acts. Making mockery of his own real tears, Raju still goes ahead with his next comic act! After all, the show must go on!
After bidding Maria an emotional farewell, Raju tells his mates that he would be leaving the circus to try and piece together a new life. But he assures them that he would definitely come back one last time to perform his final act!
This second part of the film is another remarkable piece of film-making with some spectacular circus acts and a very sensitively told love-story. The Russian actress Kseniya looks beautiful and innocent. Raju and Maria’s conversations- with he trying to make head or tail of Russian and she trying to pick up threads of Hindi- quite imaginatively capture the blooming love.
Third Part: Raju meets Meenu
After the second interval, we see Raju walking aimlessly on a beach. After casting a forlorn look at his stuffed toy- Joker, he throws it into the sea- only to find a dog run in and retrieve it. The dog happens to be a pet of Meenu who is a street-urchin, making a living by sticking up film-posters. After an initial misunderstanding, Raju and Meenu become friends-cum-roommates. Together they set up a street-circus but in one of the performances, Meenu’s shirt gets torn, revealing that the young boy Meenu is actually a young girl Meena instead!
This revelation leads to an obvious chain of events, emotionally linking Raju and Meena. They start performing song-and-dance stage-shows. Meena’s nonchalant get-ahead-at any cost attitude often keeps disturbing and hurting simple-minded Raju and that’s why when a leading film-producer Kumar (Rajendra Kumar) asks Raju to let go of Meena, so that she could make a great future in films, he obliges. This is the third straight heart-break for him-but like every time, he braves it with an outward smile!
Cut to Raju’s final circus- performance. The strains of Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan Isk Siwa Jaana Kahan just emphasize the inevitability of it all. For this Joker- everything must begin and end within this circus arena. The performer has to put on that silly laughing mask on- regardless of what he feels inside!
This third part of the film sticks out like a sore thumb with its sagging pace, tacky production values and overall meaningless nature. Raj could well have made a complete movie from the first two parts and it still would have made the point he was out to make. But somehow, he opted for further drive home the philosophical message and adding what he though was commercially viable elements. That’s why we get to see Padmini heaving her bosom in a curve-hugging wet sari, we get a heavy dose of none-too-great songs and we get the film-producer Kumar reiterating Raj’s own philosophy when he says, “For loving I have my wife and my kids, what I look in my heroine is to satisfy my creativity!”
Mera Naam Joker insightfully showed frailty of human relationships and frustrations of showbiz in a performer’s life but it couldn’t be the flawless classic. Shankar-Jaikishan’s music came up with some great songs like Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din and Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan but otherwise the songs and their picturisation did not leave much impact- in fact, they impeded the story’s flow at times. The film’s near four hour length and a patchy third part tested audience patience. As an actor, Raj Kapoor had played his part expressively but increasing girth and his ageing face made it difficult to accept him as a leading man. The resultant box-office disaster was taken pretty badly by Raj Kapoor. Like any other great performer, he rose up again after this fall and came up with a new brand of cinema in his next film- Bobby, where he asked his teenager son to play the hero. The days of Raj Kapoor- the leading man were over forever.
Later, in one of his interviews Raj explained why he still considered Mera Naam Joker as his most favourite film. He said, “As the mother feels an extra attachment towards her injured and lame child, I too have a soft corner for this film, which was rejected by people!”