(SPOILERS AHEAD) (Not a review)
“Joker” isn’t just a movie. It is an audio-visual essay on the ironies of the informed age. It is a colourful, jovial socio-political commentary on how sick our society is. It is a romantic tragicomedy, which deals with birth and death, and everything in between. The picture it paints of modern Tamil society leaves you confused, because in the end, you don’t know if you should laugh or cry at what we have become.
That the director Raju Murugan was a journalist comes as no surprise after watching the movie. An informed viewer will understand the beauty of the intelligent nuance he brings across in every issue he touches. There is no black or white in Murugan’s world. There is the delusion of colour, and the reality of the sad, depressing grey.
At the core of it, “Joker” is about activism and poverty – and how we have trained ourselves to dismiss activists and the poor to enjoy our hypocritical lives. And from this core, the story spins out to broach issues ranging from prohibition and caste to environment.
The movie begins at Pappireddipatti in Dharmapuri district, with a perfect summation of rural Tamil Nadu. Trucks belonging to the mafia are smuggling fresh, wet sand from the river-bed in broad daylight. There are no usable toilets at homes, so kids are shitting by the road. Men are drinking in street corners even as kids are being taught by a private tuition teacher just across the lane. Women are watching TV serials, and Puthiya Thalaimurai news is on at the protagonist’s home while he takes a dump in his half-built toilet.
This toilet would later emerge as the centre of the story.
The lead role is that of Mannar Mannan, a mentally unsound and poor activist who thinks he is the people-appointed President of India. He has a national flag flying outside his house called ‘Pappireddi Bhavan’. He goes around on a moped under a giant umbrella stolen from a temple chariot. His neighbour calls him a ‘loosu naayi’ (mad dog).
He has two lieutenants in his struggle to enforce law and hold government accountable – a serial court-petition activist and old man, Potti Case Ponoonjal, modelled after our very own Traffic Ramaswamy, and Isai, the widow of a TASMAC employee who ironically dies of alcohol abuse at the counter of his own shop.
What’s striking about the movie is how current it is – it brings home arguments by referring to events and figures of today.
The case the three activists are dealing with is that of Usain Bolt, a goat belonging to a poor farmer which has been injured by a reckless truck belonging to the sand-mafia. Hello, Olympics.
There are posters of Ajith, Vijay, “Baahubali” and Dhoni – and a local politician in those avatars.
Social media is the activists' weapon. Mannar Mannan uses Facebook to communicate – calls it ‘mugam-puthagam’ which would be the exact translation of ‘Facebook’ in Tamil. The movie also refers to internet celebrities like Shashank Thala, and commentators like Charu Nivedita.
When they get locked up by the police inside a room, one of them asks, “Shall I call Evidence Kadhir?”, referring to a well-known caste-activist in Madurai. While speaking to a collector, the officer is told, “Behave like Sagayam,” a reference to a popular IAS officer in Tamil Nadu who took on the sand mafia.
The first half of the movie is uproarious. The mockery of public activism and modern Indian politics is enjoyable. The movie takes on the innovative ways in which activists protest. For instance, to protest the slow pace of governance, they hold a turtle race outside the collector’s office. To protest potholes, Mannan crawls on water-filled roads. There is a reverse-walk protest, and a handcuffed-crawl protest. There is a dead-body protest, and a strip-naked protest. They dance like sedition-accused singer Kovan’s troupe, and shout slogans against the evil corporates.
The movie manages to comment on a myriad issues effortlessly.
It takes on freebies, when Ponoonjal asks, “You take money from us and buy us stuff, and call that a government scheme?” At another instance, a politician is asked, “Will you create social sector schemes just to make money?”
Religion is mocked. Two Christian healers are inside a hospital, shouting “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” while holding a near-dead patient, and Mannan laments at our blind-faith and lack of basic healthcare.
Political calls for alcohol prohibition are destroyed with subtlety, when men at a political rally make a beeline for free liquor even as the leader is calling for prohibition on stage.
Mindlessly long court battles are portrayed with dark humour. The process is the punishment.
A good few scenes are about a private educational institution which has encroached on water-bodies, and during the building construction of which, a labourer’s child dies after falling into a well.
Media is ridiculed mercilessly. “They hold debates even if someone cleans their buttocks,” one says, and later the reporters are shown leaving a press conference of the activist in a hurry because “Khusbu has arrived at Pennagaram”. The only reporter who doesn’t leave is from ‘Timepass’ magazine.
The attack on ‘secular’ politics is brutal. Islamic leaders are shown stating how Islam is a religion of peace, and yet threatening those who don’t agree with them. Politics of religious tolerance and secularism are also shown to be protective shields for a select few.
There is a veiled Dalit undertone. Come to think of it, the protagonist could be a Dalit, but it is not made very evident. There are hints to the director’s politics. In one scene, you can see posters of Rohith Vemula and one of Qutubuddin Ansari, the face of the Gujarat riots. In the background, at Mannan’s first protest is a statue of Ambedkar, locked behind protective bars as protestors usually are in TN.
Our apathy to mental health patients is brought out when Mannan is forced to get ‘treated’ at a hospital. Our apathy to under-trial prisoners is unmasked when Mannan gets locked-up in jail.
But the central issue is sanitation.
Mannan falls in love with Malliga, courts her and wins her over, but there is one big problem. He has no toilet at his home. She refuses to marry him. He is later told that there is a government scheme to build toilets, so he applies for it. Meanwhile, she agrees to marry him having seen just the commode of the toilet fitted, in the hope that it will be completed one day. But given the nature of our social sector schemes, the toilet remains just a commode because the money is swindled by politicians.
They remain toilet-less, until the President decides to visit their village to ‘inaugurate’ the scheme.
Now, there is a clamour for Mannan’s toilet to be built, and the couple are overjoyed.
But soon enough, the President’s men change the venue and the toilet construction is stalled. That fateful night, Malliga uses the toilet, and the poorly built structure falls on her. She is pregnant, too.
She bleeds in the broken toilet till morning, when Mannan finally finds her. She is still alive, but he is not allowed to take her to the hospital by the cops because the President’s event is on. As the President talks about women empowerment on the stage, she is bleeding her way into coma.
At the hospital, she is declared to be in vegetative state. In the days to follow, Mannan loses his mind to the mindless tragedy and apathy around him, and becomes the self-appointed President of India.
He wants euthanasia for her, but courts don’t allow it. He says, “You guys cannot even build a toilet, it is my fault I came to you asking for justice.”
When he is going to euthanize his wife himself, he is killed by a sand-lorry. Even in death, the system does not give him a choice.
The women characters are strong, but there isn’t enough indictment of stalking. When Mannan is courting Malliga, he follows her every day. She asks him not to come near her house, and he starts getting down at the previous bus-stop. But even then, you are made to think that relentless pursuit is required to win over a woman.
Before the climax, there is a long monologue by Ponoonjal, the serial petitioner. He asks the audience, “You live with all these injustices around you, and when few among us rise up and fight, you call us jokers? Aren’t you the jokers?”
In the end, the activist Isai is speaking on the phone exhorting another to join the protest against Mannan’s death. And that is the giant middle-finger to our upper-class cynicism to activism – say what you have to about activists, mock them all you want, but they will fight on. If this does not agitate us into reality, nothing will.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.