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Mera Naam Joker was a masterpiece with mature, non-toxic masculinity, nuanced portrayal of human emotions, and flawed, real women who were equals having their own agency.
On December 18th, one of Hindi cinema’s classic movies, Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker, completed 50 years. In an interview about the same, Simi Garewal, who played Miss Mary in the movie, spoke about how, in general roles for women in those days didn’t have much substance. “Well today, finally, female characterizations have become strong and bold. But at that time they were the opposite! They were either subservient or silly college girls for mere decoration.”
She spoke about how directors would try to sell her roles that glorified the ‘sacrifice’ of women, knowing that, “every tear a woman sheds is money at the box office”.
It got me thinking about how, in that respect, and others, Raj Kapoor movies, and in particular, Mera Naam Joker, were ahead of their time.
Raj Kapoor has been accused of a lot of problematic things – from cheating on his wife, to objectifying women by shooting them in ways that are titillating. These are valid criticisms.
At the same time, however, the women in his movies were more than just props. The characters they played were complex women, who didn’t necessarily subscribe to “sanskaari” tropes.
As this article says, “The thread that binds Kapoor’s oeuvre is the manner in which his scripts ensured that the leading lady got equal, if not more, prominence which besides making the films convincing also transformed the hero into something exceptional.”
Mera Naam Joker, a multi-starrer film that starred three heroines – Simi Garewal, Kseniya Ryabinkina, and Padmini – did justice to all three of them. In the aforementioned interview, Simi Garewal mentions how Raj Kapoor even gave her the freedom to pick her outfits and even write some of her own dialogues.
One of the most important things about the movie, is how it handled sensitive themes with nuance.
For example, the storyline involving Simi Garewal, and Rishi Kappor, playing a younger version of the protagonist, involves him having a crush on her. She is older to him, and plays his teacher. Many films have been made since, on the issue, but most of them play it for laughs or to titillate. In Mera Naam Joker too, there is a scene in which Raju watches Miss Mary get nearly naked. He is both aroused by it and guilty about it. A lesser film would have turned it into a lesson on morality. However, Mera Naam Joker uses it as an opportunity to recognize that sexual curiosity and urges are normal at that age, and that they must be handled with sensitivity and care, rather than with punishment and censure. As this piece says, “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.”
The second woman that Raju falls in love with, is the Russian acrobat, Marina. Theirs however is a doomed love, and even though she loves him, she cannot be with him. It is an incident that truly leaves him heartbroken – but it is important to note that he does not resent her for leaving, or for choosing duty to her father over love. Compare that to movies today, such as the problematic mess that is Kabir Singh, in which misogynistic and toxic behaviour are justified as “heartbreak” and “love.”
Finally, Padmini’s character – as that of an ambitious and unlikeable woman, also stands out. Here, even though Raju recognizes that he has been manipulated and used by Meena, and he chooses to leave, he does so without shaming her, or asking her to give up her dreams of success or fame. Instead, he asks her to go ahead and not turn back.
The “hero” then, breaks the conventions of Bollywood, because he never ‘wins.’ He isn’t the muscular, violent ‘alpha’ male, who ‘gets the girl,’ but is instead a mature human being, who can see the women in his life as equals, and who realizes that there is more to life than the traditional trappings of success.
This is one of the reasons why the film did so badly at the box office that it nearly forced Raj Kapoor into bankruptcy. Film audiences then, and even now, sadly, prefer simplistic narratives that don’t ask too much of them. Mera Naam Joker had too much philosophical heft. That the movie is four hours long didn’t do it any favours either.
Today, however, the movie is recognized as a masterpiece. One wishes that more film makers would take Mera Naam Joker as an example, and craft stories that celebrate these other, more wholesome kinds of masculinity, instead of recycling the same old tired tropes and ideas.
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