Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker celebrates toxic work culture to the point that it’s painful to watch

Half way through Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker is a scene where his character, who is a performer at a circus, loses his mother in front of his eyes. He is still in shock, struggling to process the moment when he watched his mother die, and this is when his boss tells him to go on stage and perform, and so he does. His boss says, ‘The show must go on’ and Raj Kapoor follows his orders. He is meant to be a joker so the audience laughs as they watch him, but he is in undeniable pain. This scene, I believe, explains the core of Mera Naam Joker, an otherwise lengthy film that celebrates the grit of a performer, even when it may seem unhealthy and toxic.

The 1970 film was a dream project for Raj Kapoor and by the time it was released in theaters it was over 4-hours long with two intervals, which many said was the reason for its failure. Such was the criticism that Raj Kapoor was on the verge of losing everything he had earned by then. This was the era when filmmakers put in their own money, mortgaged their houses, sold their gold jewelry to invest in a film so the failure of a film had immediate consequences. While recently rewatching Mera Naam Joker (an abridged 3-hour version that’s available on ZEE5), it was evident why in a year with hits like Johny Mera Naam, Purab Aur Paschim, Sachaa Jhutha, Safar, and many more, the Raj Kapoor film did not appeal to the audience. Excessively indulgent with a lagging pace, Mera Naam Joker requires patience and even if you manage to keep that patience, the reward doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

For the opposite, Mera Naam Joker is the story of Raju. We see him through three phases in his life and how the woman he loves in each phase ends up shaping him, while he tries to be the ‘joker’ who can make the world laugh, even when he is going through a tragedy. The first phase has a young Rishi Kapoor playing Raju. When he first learns the concept of a ‘joker’ he instantly identifies with it. A wise man tells him that being a joker is like being God and Raju is completely sold on the idea. He develops a teenage crush on his teacher, played by Simi Garewal, but the film doesn’t treat it as something that’s quite normal for kids his age, rather it underlines Raju’s sexual awakening in a sadistic way.

mera naam joker Mera Naam Joker does not normalize Raju’s teenage crush, but in fact, it shames him for it. (Photo: Express Archives)

The second chapter has him working as an actual joker in a circus and this is where he meets a Russian woman he falls in love with. He also polishes his act as a joker and is made to go through that rather torturous (for him) performance when his mother passes away. Watching that scene made this place seem like an extremely toxic work space where someone can’t even get a minute to grieve. But the film does not focus on that, in fact, it applauds Raju and his boss because Raju is placing his ‘duty’ above his emotions in what is possibly the most painful moment of his life. The film’s theme of ‘Jeena yahan marna yahan’ feels brutal here. The idea of ​​placing work over one’s self has been celebrated in our culture and Mera Naam Joker pushes it quite far, and pats itself on the back for the same.

The last chapter has him working with a street performer, Meena, who he eventually falls in love with. Meena wants to work hard and get ahead in life but somehow, Raju does not approve of the idea of ​​leaving the simple things behind while chasing success. Through these three phases, Raju keeps reiterating that all he wants is to make people happy, no matter what he is going through. The film is consistently praising his sacrificial nature as if it’s saying that living for your own self amounts to nothing if you are not serving those around you. After his mother’s passing, Raju has no ambitions for himself. We are told that he is a man with a heart of gold, and he might as well be, but he believes he exists in this world to entertain people so when he starts working with Meena, Raju starts questioning his existence. Living in someone else’s shadow is not meant for him and thus when he is asked to walk away, he is ready to let go.

raj kapoor It’s tragic to watch someone in a workplace where they aren’t even given a minute to grieve their mother’s death. (Photo: Express Archives)

At the time, Raj Kapoor pulled off one of the biggest casting coups when he managed to bring many stars of the time in a single film. Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar, Dara Singh, all played significant parts here but even their star appeal, combined with Raj Kapoor’s huge fan base could not help the film. His daughter Rima shared in a 2018 interview with Filmfare, “Papa was bad with money. He’d say, ‘Either I create or become an accountant.’ That’s why he never imagined that his extravaganza Mera Naam Joker (1970) would be such a debacle. It was his heart and soul. A lot was mortgaged, including his respect. He was devastated. After Joker, people dropped him. Distributors and financiers abandoned him. People said, ‘Raj Kapoor satthiya gaya hai. (Raj Kapoor has gone crazy). He’s finished’.”

In an interview with BBC, Raj Kapoor had once said that Mera Naam Joker was very dear to him, and more so because it wasn’t a success. He said there was something about it that it didn’t work, or perhaps it was extraordinary and that was the reason for its failure. In the years since its release, Mera Naam Joker has been declared by many as a film that was ‘ahead of its time’, or something that was too niche for a mass audience. Upon watching it over five decades after its release, it is obvious that the film was too busy philosophizing its theme, rather than conveying it to the audience. In many places, the film touches upon many existential issues, but it undercuts it all with silly comic sequences that feel jarring.

Mera Naam Joker’s core thought of being sacrificial might have come from a place of magnanimity, but watching it now makes you think that not prioritizing self-care is probably the most unhealthy trait that we have inherited from our predecessors.

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