Mera Naam Joker celebrated the golden jubilee of tears and smiles, completing 50 years of its existence in December 2020. Here is a brief account of the vision that its creator, Raj Kapoor, had when it was first announced and how he felt on the day of its release on December 18, 1970.
After winning the Grand Prix for Jagte Raho at the International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia, Raj Kapoor expressed his intention to make a project called Joker in December 1957. In his words, “This film is the story of a tear and a smile. It is the story of a character, the joker, who says, I shall drink your tears and in return make you smile”.
For the next two years, nothing was heard till Raj declared the new title of his film as Mera Naam Joker after visiting the Czechoslovak State Circus performing in the town in February 1960. The declaration was reported in Screen news magazine in detail, along with much more interesting facts still not known to many.
The addition of two words in the title as Mera Naam Joker strongly pointed towards an expression often used by the director as Mera Naam Raj Kapoor, also reminding of the song Mera Naam Raju in his film Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai.
As reported, Raj Kapoor had decided to take three new girls for the film and his son Daboo (Randhir Kapoor) was supposed to feature in it as the adolescent joker. Narrating an incident to be included in the script, he informed that the joker as a child meets a girl of his age while skiing. She is skiing with grace and in a sincere attempt to imitate her, the boy keeps stumbling awkwardly. The girl starts laughing and just to make her laugh more, he begins repeating the clumsy act as a joker. Interestingly, the sequence was there in the film but featuring young Rishi Kapoor playing the adorable role (instead of Randhir) and Simi playing the pretty teacher (instead of a girl of the same age) helping Rishi in skiing in an introductory scene lasting under a minute.
The film actually went into production in 1964-65 and took six years in the making while going through several changes in the script, casting, songs and editing. It resulted in a three-part movie of a little more than four-hour duration having two intervals (as in Sangam). But according to Bunny Reuben, it was, in its original version, a saga of six chapters with six different leading ladies, and Raj also had an idea of presenting it as two full-length films containing three chapters each.
Ten years post the announcement, on the release of the film, Raj wrote a piece in Screen in which he admitted a truth that actually proved brutal for the film’s fate at the box office. In the article published on December 18, 1970, the day of its release, he wrote, “I want to make clear here that Mera Naam Joker is not a superficial comedy film. It is a film about laughter, yes, it could not be otherwise, seeing that its central figure is that of a clown. But basically and essentially, it is a very serious and emotional film. It is a film about the human heart. It is a film about love and longing. It is a film about human tragedy — the tragedy which common people everywhere endeavour to conceal by forcing smile on their faces even while tears are brimming over from beneath their eyelids.
I have lived the Joker’s life from the early years of my boyhood. I have been this Joker from ever since I can remember and the many loves which have made my life have come to the surface, in one garb or another, in Mera Naam Joker.”
The truth stated above by the maker himself exactly describes the reason why the mega venture couldn’t win over the viewers. As conveyed by the title, the people were expecting a thoroughly engaging and entertaining film, if not an outright comedy, instead of a human tragedy. However, despite being a failure, another fact associated with the creation remains that in the later decades it did become a cult classic and a top earner for the Kapoors through its re-runs and exploitation of various rights in the video and digital era.
Admitted by the director himself, Mera Naam Joker was an autobiographical account of his life, but then how could Nargis not be a part of it. Actually, Nargis was very much there in the film, cleverly included in the song Kehta Hai Joker using the excerpts of Shree 420 in a fast-forward mode. In fact, that one loving insertion truly completed the classic.
(The writer is a critic-columnist, an explorer of cinema and author of 'Did You Know' series on Hindi films also active at bobbytalkscinema.com)