When we first meet Mannar Mannan (Guru Somasundaram), the protagonist of Joker, he’s squatting behind his home, reading the newspaper and relieving himself. The crudeness of the image is intentional – everything about it is. We’re meant to see that there’s no proper toilet, and slowly, we will see how important this toilet is in the scheme of his life. As for the newspaper, it points to his obsessive interest in his surroundings (he lives in Dharmapuri) and the country beyond it. He’s not happy about the state of the nation. The shopkeeper down the street uses his television set to watch cricket (Mannan, naturally, prefers the news). People drink harmful carbonated beverages. The water is contaminated with fluoride. In hospitals, parents of ailing children (one has fallen into a well) prefer to pray to God rather than petition the government for better facilities. Then, we have sand smuggling, men wasting their lives (and money) in wine shops, a skyline made of ginormous cut-outs of Vijay and Ajith…
The crux is this: Mannan thinks he’s the President. (Yes, that President. A handmade poster in his house has his photo beneath pictures of Abdul Kalam, Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee.) He stages protests against everything he feels is wrong, and his methods are unique. To protest against the slow working of the corporation, for instance, he releases tortoises in the building. And his sidekicks (Gayathri Krishna, who captures all this on her phone and loads the clips on social media, and Mu Ramasamy, made to look like the writer Jayakanthan) egg him on. At least, they indulge him. In short, the opening scenes quickly usher us into the kind of film where “letters to the editor” masquerade as dialogue, good intentions masquerade as cinema. (I am sure the director Raju Murugan won’t mind this criticism. He even squeezes in a line about free speech.) And I recalled Cuckoo, the director’s earlier film, whose failings we find here. Joker, for a while (and for something being sold as a satire), is too straight, too earnest, too consumed by the “importance” of the issues it raises. The opening scene shows children defecating on the roadside as vendors of brooms cycle by. “Irony,” in case you missed it. No moment is tossed off, insignificant. Take a look at the books the characters read. Kalam’s Agni Siragugal. Naan Malala. You’d think someone in the village would find five minutes to unwind with the latest Vikatan, but no. The film is so crammed with a sense of civic duty that it forgets to breathe.
But something magical happens about a half-hour in. The film becomes a film, a piece of cinema. It stops being a screed, it starts telling a story – a lovely story. We slip into a flashback and learn how Mannan got to be this way. It’s not that Raju Murugan stops talking about things. It’s just that these issues are dramatised, folded into the events that unfold around Mannan and Mallika (the graceful Ramya Pandian). The fact that local cable stations air the latest films at night is an issue. But it’s slipped casually into the scene where Mannan tells Mallika he owns a TV set. (She wants to inspect the facilities in his house before she commits.) Open defecation is an issue, but unlike the earlier scene with the boys, it now becomes a plot point: Mallika will not marry someone whose house doesn’t have a toilet. (A Tamil-film heroine who is strong, who speaks her mind, who has to be won over. It’s a medical mi-rack-le.) Another issue isn’t even stated: there are TVs, but no toilets. Later, when the real President makes a visit, we tackle the issue of Potemkin villages – this, too, plays a crucial part in the story. And what about the issue of people being roped into political gatherings, to act as cheering crowds in exchange for biriyani and booze? It becomes the basis for the Mannan-Mallika meet-cute.
What’s on display, essentially, is the fill-in-the-blanks technique we now recognise as “the Shankar flashback,” but one that’s vastly more affecting. (Thinking along these lines, Joker becomes a lower-key variation on a Shankar theme: What if Indian thatha took to peaceful protests instead of offing wrongdoers?) The editorialising doesn’t go away entirely. There’s another ugly bit of irony in a scene that shows middlemen in bathtubs and on ceramic thrones pocketing money meant for toilets in villages. But the Mannan-Mallika story is so riveting that these lapses are easy to brush aside. Unlike the love story in the overwrought Cuckoo, this one works. Raju Murugan, this time, doesn’t strain for the epic. He’s far better at charting out intimate moments.
He’s also one of a handful of filmmakers (Karthik Subbaraj is another) who uses Ilayaraja’s songs meaningfully. The song that’s sung as Mallika and Mannan meet? Iru paravaigal… Raju Murugan not only showcases rarer numbers (say, En gaanam indru arangerum from Eera Vizhi Kaaviyangal), he toys with them. I got a big laugh from the prisoner who sings Alli thandha boomi, from Nandu. The next scene, his wife brings him… nandu kozhambu. Raju Murugan’s own music director, Sean Roldan, contributes magnificently too – Ola ola kudisayila (which may be another homage to Ilayaraja; there’s a similarly worded song in Orey Oru Gramathiley) and Chellamma are drop-dead stunners. And his background score creates unusual spaces. A highly dramatic moment plays over little more than slightly discordant keys and the sounds of a downpour.
I left the film wishing Raju Murugan would make a straight-out love story, with unglamorous stars, in these exquisitely unglamorous settings. Because few others seem to be making them. And because after the flashback, the messages return with a vengeance. (A speech by the Mu Ramasamy character, explaining the Significance Of The Title, is a particular low point.) But Guru Somasundaram makes it all worthwhile. He makes us empathise deeply with a difficult character who’s part truth-spewing wise fool, part man with a mental condition. Watch him when he’s held back by cops during the President’s visit. You expect explosions of righteous rage. Instead, we get how pathetic, how powerless he is. Watch him search for the right word while addressing Supreme Court judges in English. “I reject your [pause] judgement.” A good actor can dust the cobwebs off clichés. A great one can (almost) make you buy a message movie.
- Indian thatha = see here
- nandu kozhambu = crab soup
- Agni Siragugal = see here
- Naan Malala = see here
- Vikatan = see here
- Cuckoo = see here
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