The idea of an alien movie set in India isn’t half-bad. An alien spoof movie set in India: sure, that’s even better. A movie about a village of madmen that doesn’t exist on the map: that’s a perfectly good idea, too (especially if we don’t think too hard about the fact that the germ of it almost certainly came from Manto’s genius story ‘Toba Tek Singh’). So Shirish Kunder’s Joker isn’t short on starting premises. But a film that hopes to fly all these kites simultaneously can only be setting itself up for a spectacular fall. And boy, does it crash and burn.
The tragedy is that if you look at it all as an intentional spoof, you can begin to see where Shirish Kunder is coming from. After all, Joker takes Hindi cinema’s favourite kind of makes-us-thump-our-chests NRI – the NASA scientist – and puts him in charge of his most ridiculous project yet: a search for aliens, conducted via a roomful of flashing screens and dish antennas which can be apparently be condensed into a briefcase version and carried along to India when the need arises.
The spoof carries on: having been brought back to his ancestral village by the oldest Hindi movie trick in the book, the great Indian deathbed call (Pitaji aakhri saansein gin rahe hain), our noble scientist Agastya (Akshay Kumar) is most annoyed to find his father hale and hearty, and decides to go right back to his alien search in Amreeka. It’s only after a bizarre series of events -- involving the old man (a deliberately cross-eyed Darshan Jariwala) hanging upside down over a daldal to rescue Agastya and his younger brother Babban (a gibberish-speaking Shreyas Talpade) -- that the NRI decides to stay and rescue the village from the daldal of daridrata (mire of poverty).
This brings us to the second stage of spoof: Agastya decides to create a fake crop circle to attract the attention of the world to his neglected Paglapur. And this, naturally, he must do while masquerading as a dhoti-clad ‘farmer’. So what if the rest of the village wears whatever the hell they like – from the leftover firang Lord Falkland in his time warp angrez uniform to the village headmaster (Asrani) who dresses, as one reviewer correctly points out, like CV Raman? Who cares, when our hero gets to switch from parodying Shah Rukh Khan in Swades to parodying Aamir Khan in Lagaan. And that too in a gaaon that looks like a cross between an old-style mela and a new-style amusement park (there’s even a permanently stationed ferris wheel), with a big helping of Asterix’s Gaulish village thrown in.
The problem, however, is that all of these carefully constructed spoofs fall as flat as a failed souffle. We aren’t exactly expecting the visual jugglery and non-stop clever gags that make an alien spoof into a classic like Tim Burton’s gleefully destructive Mars Attacks (1995) – but a little bit of spark would be nice. It would be nice, for example, if it was possible to have dialogue whose ‘humour’ didn’t depend on the tired gimmick of literal translation from Hindi. Lines like “Don’t fly my joke’ (mera mazaak mat udao) and ‘Hair hair remains’ (baal baal bache) aren’t unique to Joker, but that doesn’t make them any less shockingly lame.
It would be nicer still if a range of comic actors as talented as Shreyas Talpade, Anjan Srivastava, Sanjay Mishra and Pitobash Tripathy were given a script which didn’t crush them under the weight of its ridiculous stupidity. (Anjan Srivastava, it seems to me, hasn’t got a meaty funny role since his iconic Wagle ki Duniya was on Doordarshan circa 1988 – I’d be happy to be corrected – while Shreyas Talpade last managed a proper centre spread in 2008’s Welcome to Sajjanpur. The others are still waiting.)
After Agastya’s crop circle ploy succeeds, the film holds out the promise of a ‘contemporary India’ comedy: the media arrives, and where the media comes, governments follow. So do religious loonies and tourists. Visitors mean revenues, and the media musn’t leave, so Agastya and his girlfriend Deeva (a simpering, annoying Sonakshi Sinha) come up with one fictitious otherworldly experience after another to keep them there, including – wait for it – the creation of vegetable-dyed and vegetable-anointed ‘aliens’ out of Paglapur’s less gifted inhabitants.
There’s also a running make-fun-of-America track, which gives us at least one rather good moment when the alien sighting in Paglapur is proclaimed a “definite threat to the security of the United States” – but why Agastya’s eager-beaver firang rival (the gleefully named Simon Goeback) should be a villain when all he’s trying to do is uncover Agastya’s deliberate scam is beyond me.
As compared to the in-your-face screechiness of a Ready or the excruciating double entendre humour of a Kya Super Kool Hain Hum, Joker is almost inoffensive. The trouble is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a cynical take on the state of the country, or a deep-down-philosophical fantasy in which the gibberish of madmen turns out to be an alien language – or just a standard-issue jingoistic comedy in which Indians can be heroes no matter what and white people are just evil, dude.