Silly comedies are common. These are the ones with PJs and slapstick, the kind of films before sitting down for which a certain kind of reviewer might advise us to “leave our brains at the door.” Nonsense comedies, however, are rarer – these are films where the audience has to be reasonably alert, tuning their antennae to a certain frequency, a certain vibe, and at least for a while, it seemed to me that Shirish Kunder was on to a solid nonsense comedy with Joker. The opening scene sets the tone. A British cartographer, circa 1946, is approaching the village of Paglapur, home to a famed mental asylum. He’s almost there when the car stops. He sees terrified men and women fleeing and, further ahead, burning buildings. Fearing for his life, he turns back, and thus, we learn, Paglapur was never acknowledged in the map of India – the village, cut off from the rest of the country, turns into a nutcase Shangri-La. The locals are stuck in a time warp, where an aircraft flying above sends them scurrying for cover, fearing bombardment by Hitler’s forces.
This is a most daft beginning, and the story gets weirder (in a good way) when we cut to Agastya (Akshay Kumar, who went by the same name in Kunder’s first feature, Jaan-e-Mann) sprawled out in front of the hi-tech contraptions in his home in the USA, awaiting signs of alien life. In these early portions, Kunder displays a genuine joy for making movies that are out to entertain a large audience. And he doesn’t go about it in a lazy and cynical fashion, like how a Sajid Khan does, tossing together a heap of actors and lighting a fire under their behinds. Kunder follows his heart, and what appears to be a real vision. He is an original. When Agastya lands in Paglapur – he was born in the village, and he returns with his girlfriend (Sonakshi Sinha) to see his dying father (a wonderfully loony Darshan Jariwala) – he meets a kid who hangs upside down, thinking he’s a lantern, and later, the villagers want to know why Agastya did not respond to their letters, never mind that the local post office has been closed for decades and the letters, therefore, never reached him in the first place.
As long as Joker is confined to Paglapur, it is so inspired and one-of-a-kind that I began to hope that we were in for that rarest of treats – a completely visionary mainstream comedy. But once Agastya steps outside and decides to bring progress to Paglapur – by drawing the media’s attention to crop circles and aliens in the village – the film goes kaput. From a nonsense comedy, we’re back in a routinely silly comedy, and worse, some sort of occasional satire about the government and the media. Late in the story, Agastya releases a magical-looking balloon into the air, in an attempt to convince hordes of photographers and heavily armed FBI agents (don’t ask!) that a UFO is ascending to the skies. And when a sceptic hurls a knife, the punctured balloon flops back to earth. This may well be a metaphor for the movie – some fifteen minutes of oddness and wonder, followed by a crash landing. Kunder is a daring dreamer of big concepts, but he needs to be a better director to flesh them out with sustained energy. Otherwise a nonsense comedy becomes just… nonsense.
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