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Joker – painting the screen red

Going to the cinema in India has become a strangely alienating experience. The first thing is the crazy cost of the tickets. Then in the foyer you are confronted with food at obscenely high prices. Inside the theatre, every second person seems more interested in their phone than in the screen they’ve paid so much to see.

In direct contrast to this solipsistic individualism, there is simultaneously a herd mentality. Recently, I went for a morning show of Joker, with an audience mostly in its 20s and 30s. At some point during the first wash of ads, people anticipated that the national anthem was about to come on. Almost the entire audience stood up, many still looking down at their phones. Then another ad came on, so everyone sat down again. Minutes later, the anthem did come on, complete with plastic digital flag ‘waving’ like a child’s toy.

Everyone stood up. But there was no obvious respect for either flag or anthem. I would have respected them more if they’d ignored this absurd ritual and continued sitting and flipping through their messages.

Joker is a dark, gritty tragedy set in New York City/Gotham of the 80s. The light is muddy and grim throughout, even in the sunny scenes, and the story is relentless in its exposition of a cruel, dystopian society trapped in the concrete jungle of an urban nightmare.

Accurately for the US of the period, people in the film smoke everywhere, but the ludicrous law imposed upon us by the previous government, and enthusiastically continued by this one, means that every time someone lights up a cigarette on screen, a sign flashes: Smoking is injurious to health. This happens even when someone is smoking far in the background, out of focus; a bright white band destroying the integrity of the cinematography.

Gore and blood

The film starts on a high pitch of tension with incidents of street violence breaking out, each instance portending more gore and blood. The down and out, clearly mentally ill protagonist, a middle-aged ‘loser’, wants to make a career as a stand-up comic but can only get a job as a clown, holding up sale signs or doing the odd gig in children’s hospitals.

As society brutalises him from all sides, the man reaches breaking point. The full-blown violence, when it does come, is completely chilling and horrifying. Blood starts to splatter the screen regularly and with increasing intensity. You are transfixed by the transformation of the clown into a psychopathic serial killer. You wonder if there shouldn’t be some interfering, sanctimonious text on the screen at each instance of maiming and murder, saying Violence is injurious to your moral health.

Infectious frenzy

When the divide between the haves and the have-nots reaches critical point, mobs form to protest against the authorities, with everyone putting on clown masks in solidarity with the Joker. The film is in no way an apology for a man on a murderous spree, but it does show how institutional violence inflicted on the deprived can, in turn, generate grossly abhorrent reactions from people. The truly scary point was when the young audience leapt to its feet to applaud the revenge violence towards the end of the film. The same herd that had shuffled to its feet for the national anthem, sprang up now to clap and cheer, phones in hands. So infectious was the frenzy as it transferred from screen to plush seats that all sense and rationale seemed to have vaporised.

A day or so after I saw the film, someone posted a video on social media: a gang of young men were kicking and jumping on a man lying on the ground. As they punched, kicked and slammed lathis into their victim they kept shouting a religious slogan that has become ubiquitous across north India. In their actions I recognised both the mindless brutality of the Gotham crowds revelling in collective anonymity; as well as the gleeful, bloody relish in brutality the audience in the multiplex had shown.

The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.

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