When I was growing up, I often spent evenings watching old Bollywood movies with my father. Raj Kapoor
‘s films were a delight, but I wondered why we never watched Mera Naam Joker
. I knew the songs and I knew Raj Kapoor was playing a clown. Of course it was a funny film about a clown’s antics, right? But no. Dad only said I wouldn’t understand it, I had to grow up some more to know what the film was about. Since those were days of video tape rental stores (where I couldn’t go alone because it was far from home), I had to keep mum and grow up.
It was only last week that I remembered I had to watch Mera Naam Joker. And do I know if my dad was right about it? Yes. It is a grown up movie with a simple narrative but about the difficult life of a man who wants to keep people smiling. It is about the glory and the pain of the first crush in our adolescent years, discovering sexuality, being infatuated with the idea of love, romance, intimacy, expression of physical desires, rejection, heartache, heartbreak, losing people we love and moving on. It is also the story of a boy who, like his father, becomes a clown in a circus to spread joy and laughter. The movie has three acts, corresponding with the three eventful stages of the protagonist’s story.
Chapter 1: Infatuation
A pre-adolescent Raju (a very young Rishi Kapoor) studying in a posh convent school in a secluded hill station is actually a poor boy whose mother (Achala Sachdeva) works day and night to be be able to afford his education. Some time into this act, we are told that Raju’s father was a circus clown who died of a fall from the trapeze amid applause and laughter from the audience, who thought it was all part of his act. Raju’s mother hates the circus and wants Raju to study well and become a white-collared worker. But Raju, in this instant, has already found his calling and wants to be a messenger of love and happiness just like him.
Typically full of mischief, like school kids are, Raju meets his new teacher, Miss Mary (Simi Garewal) and falls for her beauty and her kind heart hook, line and sinker. She becomes his object of fancy and Raju is guilt-ridden, but he continues to follow her around like a puppy and gives her a clown-doll – himself. After the annual school break, Miss Mary comes back with her fiance, David (Manoj Kumar), who understands Raju’s infatuation for Mary. Rather than take offence, he gently guides and counsels Raju into accepting who he is, his love for people and appreciates his desire to make people laugh by being a joker. While Raju’s part-time jobs as a clown, selling toothpaste on the streets of his town get him expelled from his hoity-toity school, Miss Mary also tells him of her wedding to David and asks Raju to be the best man. Raju tries to overcome his sadness and celebrates at her wedding with a wide smile. Miss Mary parts with him to leave with David after returning his clown-doll to him.
Raj Kapoor, in this chapter, has beautifully shown the turmoil, dilemma and the waging wars adolescents feel within them. Young Raju wants to be popular with his friends, but he is the class clown and is often made fun of because of his clumsiness, poor social status as compared to his classmates and because he is overweight. While the boys in his class are not really mean, he also does not find friends in them. He finds a guide in Miss Mary, and cherishes her company because she looks beyond his material presence into his pure heart. After a small accident at a pond during a class picnic, Raju peeks at a thoroughly soaked Miss Mary from behind a tree to see her take off her wet clothes. The sight of a perfect, near-naked, beautiful woman causes him sleepless nights. His conscience keeps pricking him so badly that he goes to church to confess about his fantasies of his beloved teacher whom he thinks he is disrespecting by thinking of her in sexual terms. David, however, recognises this phase as a natural thing in a growing boy’s life, and
makes Mary aware of how Raju views her. His understanding of a pubescent boy’s fantasies some from his own experiences, and he acknowledges how delicate this phase of life is. David also guides Raju towards his chosen life of becoming a joker and says one must not be ashamed of having a pure heart, honest intentions and a desire to make the world a happier place. The finesse with which Raj Kapoor directs the actors in this chapter leave the audience empathising with each of them and admiring the maturity with which the characters, especially Raju and David, deal with the conflicts they feel, or have felt in the past, within themselves. I wonder, if even today, anyone can talk about adolescence, puberty and discovering of sexuality so sensitively, as was done by the writer-director duo here.
Chapter 2: Love
After expulsion from school, Raju and his mother move to Mumbai. Raju spends time performing songs at local fairs to make a living while his mother becomes too ill to continue to work. The biggest circus in town welcomes a group of Russian performers and Raju becomes a part of the circus crew by accident. The circus manager, Mahendra Singh (Dharmendra
), recognises Raju’s talent for singing and allows him to perform as a clown. Here, Raju meets with Marina (Kseniya Ryabinkina
), the lead trapeze artist from the Russian group of performers and they strike a warm friendship
despite neither knowing a common language. Raju begins harbouring dreams of marrying Marina and even takes him to
meet his mother, who is not aware of Raju’s occupation as a clown. At home Raju gifts his clown doll to Marina, who soon finds out what Raju desires from their friendship. She meets his mother and returns the doll, not wanting to break Raju’s heart by leading him on. Meanwhile, Raju’s mother discovers that Raju is a clown in the circus from the poster in which Marina had wrapped the doll and returned it to her. She goes to the circus, full of anxiety. Raju, unaware of his mother’s presence in the audience, performs his antics and falls from the trapeze, but on the safety net. His mother suffers a heart attack from the shock of seeing him fall and dies.
Moments after Raju sees his mother’s dead body, he walks out into the crowd to perform his act. The pain of his loss is so beautifully brought to life on screen, that as a viewer one cannot but blink back tears. He does nothing, but just smiles and repeats the word “Ma” (mother). That intensity of sadness is incomparable, and it has to be the most heart-wrenching moment in this film. It is so true of the lives of entertainers and performers to put aside their personal grief and do what it takes to engage an audience wholeheartedly. That has defined the philosophy of Raj Kapoor and RK Studios, and he is famously quoted by all even today – “The show must go on.”
Soon Marina and her Russian colleagues finish their stint with Mahender Singh’s circus and they head back to Russia.She tries to console a distraught Raju by saying that ‘goodbye’ in Russian (Dasavidaniya) means “until we meet again” and if they do not separate, they won’t meet again. The simple-hearted Raju explains very simply that he is a human being, not a philosopher. With this small statement, he explains the simplicity of his character, but he ignores that what he has set out to do during his entire life is a selfless goal, which displays tremendous strength of character. Marina confesses that she does love Raju, but she cannot not go back to her country and to her lonely father. They part amid sorrowful smiles. Raju leaves the circus and sets out to find his destiny.
Chapter 3: Seduction
A wandering Raju meets with Meenu Master (Padmini) and his dog Moti, and they team up to entertain audiences at small fairs with songs and acrobatics. Meenu Master takes Raju to his house after they become friends and they begin living together. However, Meenu Master is always somewhat cautious of Raju, and the reason is never clearly told to the audience. During one of their performances, Meenu Master’s shirt snags and tears apart, letting Raju know that she is actually a woman in the guise of a man. Raju is initially disgusted with the lie he had been led to believe and does not return home that night. Next morning, when he comes back, he listens to Meena’s (her real name) story of how she came to the big bad city of Bombay to become a star, lost everything, and assumed the identity of a boy to keep away from evil, preying men. She drapes the saree Raju gifts her and accepts his advice on how she should stay true to who she is and find pride in her identity of a beautiful woman. She professes her love for him and seduces him to live with her. They begin to perform shows together, with Raju as the singer and Meena as the star dancer.
Raju gifts her his clown-doll but soon begins to observe how Meena discards anything that ceases to bear any value for her. For example, when the municipality workers take Moti away, she shows no grief. Instead, she just says that she doesn’t need Moti any longer. She keeps growing in stature as an artist and revels in the way talent hunters woo her. They grow from performing at fairs, to nautankis, and finally in dramas at the theatres. She keeps disregarding her smaller contracts to keep ascending the ladder of success; Raju follows along, somewhat begrudgingly, but loyally. On an eventful day, Meena gets the opportunity to perform in front of her matinee idol Rajendra Kumar
(played by himself), and he is swayed by her beauty and talent. Clearly infatuated with her, he calls her for an audition, and in a one-on-one conversation with Raju, convinces him to leave Padmini if he wishes to see her grow as a film star. Already having anticipated this situation, Raju takes back his clown-doll and quietly goes away to join the circus and continues to entertain his audience despite hurting from yet another failed relationship.
It is interesting to note that this is the only case where Raju takes back the doll himself, in effect, showing that he is the one who chooses to end the relationship. He is essentially pulling himself back after the “seduction” has faded and moving on. Also, in the scene inside the flight where Meena and Rajendra Kumar are seated together while Raju is seated alone in another row, the choice of magazines they are reading is interesting. A man of fame and riches, looking for his next muse is out to build Meena’s “Fortune”. Meena is witnessing a change in her “Time” (badalta waqt), while the reluctant philosopher in the garb of a simpleton is reading “Life”. Such is the beauty of this scene, one marvels at the subtle pointers at the personal stories of the characters.
It is Raju’s last performance and, as shown in the beginning of the film, he has invited the women in his life to be part of his swan song. He had sent similar clown dolls to all the women with his invitation, signifying that they will always own a part of him, despite having rejected him in one way or the other. With “Jeena yahaan, marna yahaan. Iss ke siwa jaana kahan?
(We live here, we die here. Is there anywhere else to go?)” Raju defines his destiny. He was meant to be a clown, spreading joy, in this circus-like world, and anyone looking for him only needs to call out to him. He will be where he was supposed to be.
An extraordinary boy with a simple philosophy. Or is it a simple boy with an extraordinary philosophy? No matter what you decide it is, you will agree, it leaves you extraordinarily invigorated to find joy in whatever life has to offer.
Story & Screenplay: K. A. Abbas (very sensitive writing, especially in Act I. Some bits could seem cheesy and dated now.)
Director: Raj Kapoor (top-class)
Music: Shankar Jaikishan (extremely memorable)
Lyrics: Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri, Neeraj & Prem Dhawan (The first three have composed some brilliant tracks for the film)