Joker made me sympathise with the villain, and I wondered why. The quest for its answer led me into something deeper
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” says the protagonist of the film — a middle-aged man who dreams of becoming a renowned standup comedian one day. But as fate has it, he goes on to become a criminal. This transition — from an emotional, caring, artistic human to a ruthless murderer — left all of us in the movie theatre speechless. But that was not all!
The audience cheered for him when he emerged as the pioneer of a riot-like situation and the mastermind of mass shootings in Gotham city. I was one of those who did. And that made me introspect. Yes, I am talking about Joker – the film which has been the talk of the town even before it hit the theatres.
Directed by Todd Phillips, the film is the origin story of Batman’s arch enemy Joker – one of the super villains of DC world. It has not only broken records commercially, it has been critically acclaimed and is helmed as a cinematic masterpiece. Also, the way Joaquin Phoenix portrayed Joker onscreen, the audience have been in awe of him and he deserves a bow!
But coming back to what made me contemplate is why was I cheering for someone who went on killing innocent people? Not only me, almost all or majority of those who have seen the film were praising the protagonist – and almost worshipping him as a ‘rebel’.
If we look closely, our first reaction while watching the film is sympathy. We feel bad for Joker aka Arthur Fleck — the mentally ill, middle-aged, lonely man – who dreamt of becoming a standup comedian. He takes care of his ailing mother, works hard to make ends meet and is, above all, an artist who dreams of making it big — like many of us!
But then, he becomes the ‘victim’ of circumstances and hence, Joker is born. From that moment onwards, he stops being the victim and decides to take matters on his own hands. We start feeling proud of him somewhere. ‘Yes! That’s how you give it back!’ I heard someone saying after watching the film. And I felt the same, strangely.
I almost forgot that he is a criminal, killing people around him and nothing can justify this — not how society treated him, not how he was brutally tortured or bullied or whatsoever. But I was indeed using all of the above as a justification of sorts and was left feeling sorry for him!
Also, I remember walking out of the theatre and saying to my friend that ‘Society made him into a monster, he was just an artist.’ This was my first, raw, undiluted emotion. The film took me into a dark place, made me feel for someone I never imagined empathising with. More than that, I could somewhere relate to him – as I was bullied in childhood and that came back to haunt me.
Now, the question is – is it acceptable? A film that takes you to a dark place, blurs the line between right and wrong and makes you hail the bad guy. Many debates took place: ‘Is Joker a toxic movie?’ Can it motivate people to commit crime? Will it incite violence and mass shootings? But how valid are these, no one knows.
But according to me, maybe it’s something as simple as getting into the shoes of a character — because at some level, no matter how little, you can relate to him/her. Joker is a film which has been told from the protagonist’s point of view. It’s like seeing things from his eyes, feeling what he is feeling and peeking into his mind. Thus, we get into the mind of the character and start sympathising for him — as he takes us through his life.
And as far as films are concerned, they are rightly made to make us feel things we never felt before or to live the lives of its characters. Now, it’s up to us how we conceive or perceive it. Thus, blaming films might be a tad foolish. Feeling for a criminal might just be an illusion – the one that the film creates.
Some might call it mind manipulation, or toxic or harmful. But as long as we take it all in good spirit, what’s the harm? So, I came to the conclusion that the next time I watch Joker (I am indeed planning on a second watch), I won’t question the way I feel. And the next time Arthur Fleck says: “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice,” I won’t be holding my tears back.