Joker director Raju Murugan on its National Film Award win: 'The film is whatever people want it to be'
On a chair draped in cream satin, Tamil director Raju Murugan sits upright and runs his hands through his scraggly beard, baring his pearly whites to the press. It's quite the day for him, with people clambering to shake his hand and get a piece of him. Shuffling awkwardly at the leg up in his career, his eyes widen as he mouths the words "National Award" to his producer, SH Prasad.
"Thank God he had faith in me, in this crazy story," he exclaims to a jubilant crowd of friends and journalists. With him is the film's lead Somasundaram and music director Sean Roldan — passing the mic with muted smiles as they give thanks. Murugan's high is attributed to his film winning the regional (Tamil) award for best film at the 64th National Film Awards, and the film's playback singer Sundarayyar bagging the award for best song.
Joker goes by many names — "activist movie", "David and Goliath story", "political satire" and "a depressing tale of our times".
One man, a self-declared President carries on with his delusion to challenge the system and protest every little thing. The woman he loves marries him on one condition: that his home have a toilet. In an act of tokenism, the actual President of the country visits the village and inspects every home to have a toilet. The plot then falls into a heady mix of a struggle to legalise euthanasia and death by a sand mining lorry.
"It's whatever people want it to be," Murugan says with a chuckle, of Joker. With an appetite for Tamil literature and the Communist party, Murugan devoured Charlie Chaplin and the speeches of CPI leader Nallakannu. "I watched Golden Russia and Great Dictator, and joined the CPI's youth wing, he says. Murugan is a sucker for activism and found his path in political journalism, working at Ananda Vikatan for eight years. Still plagued by a restlessness to reach out to people with his charged writing, he picked cinema and worked with Tamil director Lingusamy on two films: Bheema and Paiyya.
Cuckoo, a story of two visually challenged people falling in love was the debut that confirmed his love for good writing in film. What was striking about an otherwise ordinary story (that could have veered into melodrama and self pity territory), is the concept of normalcy in an otherwise risky plot.
After a recce in Dharmapuri, which he picked for the reputation of backwardness and caste violence, he set out to write. "This could be any village, you know, it could happen in any village. It's not a caricature of Dharmapuri, it's a portrait of a village," Murugan says, recalling metaphors for the film.
Much to the amusement of viewers, there's a goat named Usain Bolt whose leg is injured and the protagonist files a case for damages. "I wanted this to symbolise the young boys who struggle to achieve success in the sport they love, and often admire the runner Usain Bolt. (It is) injured by a truck which symbolises here a dashing of dreams. It's why I introduced the goat as a character. Who cares about a goat, just like young, struggling boys in sport?"
Toilets are an important part of the movie. His own village just witnessed the first toilet ever built there near his home and Murugan recalls a time when having a toilet was a mark of prestige. "The teaches used to ask the ones who have toilets to raise their hands. And I couldn't, and this embarrassed me and many others who didn't have toilets," he says. Women, he says, face the risk of assault when they defecate outside. "There are marriages that haven't fallen through because of the groom not having a toilet. We live in a world where we have mobile phones, but don't have toilets," he notes. In the movie, his intentions to juxtapose the launching of a rocket with the lack of a toilet, are clear. The odds are unequal.
The motif of the lone activist at the receiving end of disgust, jokes and pity, is woven through the various social issues Joker picks apart. "I love (the idea of) one man or woman doing whatever they can to take on the system, even the smallest things. I love activism and activists. I think they're the much needed entity for checks and balances," he says. They're also for many, a nuisance factor. "It's called Joker for a reason. It's the jokers who fight, who disrupt the otherwise corrupt system."
Sundarrayyar, a little known street artist, walked into a studio for the first time in his life and balked at the equipment. "He touched the cords, patted the mic, cleared his throat and began," Murugan recalls. And when he did, he acted out the song just like in a street performance. The song was finished in one take. "I've never seen a voice with as much throw and depth as his. He comes from a small village near Dharmapuri and makes his living as a part time teacher, and now he's going to New Delhi to receive a National Award," says Sean Roldan, the movie's music director, proudly.
Sundarayyar couldn't make it to the press conference. "He couldn't speak, forget coming to Chennai," says Murugan.
Joker ends tragically, almost pulling you in into the protagonists' misery and kills any chance of idealism. Says its maker, "Let’s shake (up) the comfortable."