On 'Joker' and liking the villain

A billboard advertises the new film "Joker" on October 3, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(by Gautam Chintamani)

Todd Phillips’ Joker, a standalone origin story for the maniacal villain, who also happens to the arch-nemesis of ‘Batman’, has got the police in major US cities on high alert following fears that it might spark violence. There has been much debate surrounding the film that offers a disturbing portrait of a bullied loner ever since it was screened at a few film festivals. Critics have been divided over the film that features Joaquin Phoenix in the lead, but there is a general consensus about the actor’s “brilliant but terrifying performance” as a mentally unhinged outcast who unwittingly finds fame through an act of violence. The primary reason for the fears of violence surrounding the film has to do with the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in the Christopher Nolan trilogy.

The release of Phillips’ Joker has once again brought forth the likeability factor associated with villains in popular culture. It has also rekindled the notion that the worse an antagonist, the higher the liking tends to be. As of now, liking Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck aka the Joker is akin to liking a hardened criminal, who has committed heinous crimes, on death-row because he is a human being and might have had a sad story.

Phillips has maintained that a movie cannot be blamed for the way the world is and hoped that people take the film the way he made it — about a fictional character in a fictional world. However, the trouble lies elsewhere. How Phillips gets ‘inspired’ by the real world, as shown in films such as The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, two films that guided the Joker’s path cannot help but come into play. The association of filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, who is also one of the producers of Joker, and Christopher Nolan attaches a certain degree of realism to films that feature fictional, comic book characters.

The measure of ‘liking’ the antagonist becomes a discerning factor in decoding films that feature mainstream leading men and women. Popular actors often get attached to such characters as it not only warrants more meat in terms of the role they play, but also great critical acclaim and awards. Actors such as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Charlize Theron and, last but not the least, Heath Ledger all won Oscars for playing negative characters and their roles in The Godfather (1972), The Godfather II (1974), Goodfellas (1990), Monster (2003) and The Dark Knight (2008) stand out in their body of work.

In India, too, the anti-hero has had a great legacy, right from the time Ashok Kumar became the first mainstream leading man to play a negative character in Kismet (1943). The film was criticised for glorifying crime and portraying the anti-social in a glorious light. In the 1950s, Dev Anand also won great acclaim for playing similar-themed characters in Baazi (1951), Jaal (1952), where he played a smuggler, Dushman, and Kala Bazar (1960) that featured him as a black marketeer. In the late 1960s, Yash Chopra’s Aadmi Aur Insan (1969) laid the foundation of the ‘Angry Young Man’ with Feroz Khan playing an unapologetic businessman who doesn’t bat an eyelid before doing anything immoral.

Writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar perfected this character in films such as Zanjeer (1973) and Trishul (1979) with Amitabh Bachchan embodying the anti-hero. Bachchan had made his bones playing anti-hero with much darker shades Jyoti Swaroop’s Parwana (1971), in which his character ends up killing Ashok Varma (Om Prakash) in a fit of rage after he refuses to coerce his niece (Yogeeta Bali) to pick Kumar over her lover, Rajesh (Navin Nischol) .

Unlike Hollywood, sympathy for the negative character when played by a mainstream actor in Hindi films is a traditional prerequisite. This phenomenon started with Sunil Dutt in Mother India (1957), where the son is killed by mother and perfected with films such as Ganga Jumna (1961), and later in the 1990s with Shah Rukh Khan in Baazigar and Darr. One could say that Shah Rukh Khan practically owes his career to playing characters that were low on the ‘likeability’ scale with a kind of panache usually reserved for the hero. In both Baazigar (1993) and Darr (1994), Khan played out and out evil characters with sustained pathos that saw the audience liking him more than the traditional leading man. Initially offered to Salman Khan, Baazigar went through a major overhaul after the actor’s father and screenwriter, Salim Khan, insisted on enhancing the mother’s role that was played by Rakhee to justify the killing spree that the character indulges in. In Darr, Shah Rukh Khan replaced Aamir Khan and had no problem in playing the role with more flamboyance than what the latter had in mind.

The plea to like the villain or the anti-social leading man is more than evident in films such as Kaante (2002) and Raanjhanaa (2013). Both films employ the tool of the narration wherein the former, an undercover policeman (Lucky Ali) considers himself to be one of the gang members whom he is assigned to nab in order to garner sympathy for the pack of goons, and the latter has the voice-over of the ‘hero’ justifying stalking in the name of love as his ashes are immersed in the holy Ganga.

One wouldn’t have expected anyone to top Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker from The Dark Knight, but Phoenix has already garnered much praise. True as it might be, both Phoenix and Todd Phillips have almost appealed to empathise with the Joker, which was not the case with The Dark Knight. Phillips, who won the Golden Lion for Best Picture for Joker at this year’s Venice Film Festival, has called his movie to be the kind of film that calls to self-reflection to society and not a call to action. Had Phillips not undermined the power of storytelling telling by forcing the viewer to react in a certain way, perhaps Joker would have probably had the kind of impact he hoped.