191008 joker
UAE fans rave about Joaquin Phoenix's 'Joker' Image Credit: Supplied


  • There is unkindness in many forms in the way we are with our family members, those we befriend, those we know socially, those who work for us, those who provide services to us, and even those who are strangers.
  • Kindness to me is the most important human virtue.

He sits in front of a mirror, his skeletal shoulders hunched like a child’s doodle. A black teardrop sits awkwardly under his right eye, as he contorts his leathery face into a smile that spreads like a grimace. Bright bulbs, bordering a medium-size mirror, reflect his steady hand holding a paintbrush adding colours to the ashen white of his face. Alone amidst others who talk and play cards and wait for their day to begin, silently, he keeps adding colours to the milky palette of his visage like a series of afterthoughts.

Hooking his fingers in the corners of his mouth, moving up and down, he practises his smile to create the perfect happy face, as it is his job, his ‘purpose’, to bring “laughter and joy into the world.” His mother had always told him that was what he was born to do. It didn’t matter if there was nothing joyous in his life, nothing to smile for in his world enveloped in a tedious un-changeability, in sombre colours and elegiac music of a memorial service for an unloved person.

A single tear makes its way, almost shyly, lining the black painted teardrop on his white painted face.

The dimly-lit room with its specified portions for “the hahas, which represent the agency that kind of rents out clown and strippers and magicians” is enlivened with news blaring from an invisible TV of the dreary stuff happening in the big city outside.

This is Arthur, this nondescript clown, changing his face, and practising his smile, and hiding his frowns, and wiping away his single tear, and preparing to look cheerful for the world that is unaware of its existence, and wouldn’t care if he dropped dead while it hurried around him, wrapped in its own noise, overcrowded in its self-created importance.

Joker, the latest hard-to-label cinematic enigma of Todd Phillips, the filmmaker who doesn’t generally adhere to political correctness, hits like a punch in the gut that knocks out the breath. Much has been written and said about the film that continues to be a massive global success, equally critiqued for its excessive violence and treatment of mental illness and lauded for the brilliance of its storytelling and its protagonist. Being a lifelong movie buff, I find superhero movies with their larger-than-life canvases and their deadly villains fascinating. Joker as the Batman bad guy is one of the most iconic of Hollywood’s villains, brought to more longevity with Heath Ledger’s unforgettable portrayal of Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight.

Life played one of its cruellest practical jokes when on January 22, 2008, the very promising, Academy Award-nominated–for Brokeback Mountain in 2005–Ledger died of a cardiac arrest. Heath Ledger was 28 years old. In 2009, he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his unforgettable Joker. In death, Heath Ledger immortalised Joker.

My 24-year-old niece Areeba who’s more than a daughter to me and one of my two best friends–the other is my son Musa–watched Joker with her husband, and couldn’t stop talking about it. She watched it again. That was something she had never done in Lahore-watching a movie alone in cinema. I would have watched the movie even if she had not persuaded me to, but I found very intriguing her connecting to a movie that received loud judgements of disturbing and controversial. Third time, she watched the movie with me in a single-screen cinema that was almost packed. And it was silent as Joker played in its brooding, often perplexing, mostly shadowy colours, on the large cinema screen.

The story of every human

Joker riveted me. And what made me write on Joker wasn’t the obvious. Joker is devastatingly magnificent. As a dark, very uncomfortable, unapologetic, close-framed, tersely worded epigram of the world that the imaginary Gotham was in 1981, what the world of big cities is in 2019. Todd Phillips’ Joker is macabre. It is exquisite in its darkness that dances like slivers of an eclipsed moon on its protagonist as he dances in a dingy toilet, running as if his life depended on it, to hide from bad things in a city that is his but never is, trying in all his other-ness to fit clumsily with those whose rejection of him is conditioned for reasons he can’t make sense of. Joker is the story of every human being who despite being everywhere is invisible.

The background score jolts the senses in ways that are indescribable, evoking emotions that are hard to label. Joker’s music is the chronicle of one person’s life watched at an uncomfortable proximity, every facial expression recorded, every good deed turning into a kick to shrink him into a person he doesn’t even know exists within him, every rejection dragging him into a cul-de-sac where large rats rule like little emperors, and acceptability is according to what you look like, and how much you have.

Joker’s cinematography eerily brings to ghastly life the decay and gloom of Gotham that shatters in slow motion until it implodes with the dead hopes, fractured aspirations and broken dreams of its inhabitants.

Joker is Joaquin Phoenix. Completely. Joker is Phoenix’s best performance to date, arguably. Going beyond what is criticised as deviation from the original concept of the iconic villain, and using mental illness as a catalyst to a devastating transformation, Phoenix’s Arthur, who asks to be addressed as Joker, present in every scene of Joker, had me transfixed, wordless. His physicality, the almost emaciated body, the lines on his face blurring into his painted clown-ness, his unease with words, his uncontrollable laughter–a medical affliction–his distinct walk as he moves through the city without being noticed, his almost childlike running, and his endearing closeness with his old and frail mother, whose past has secrets that are more fearful than the monster under the bed, Phoenix turns Arthur into a character that would become part of super villain hall of fame. Or ignominy. Phoenix’s Arthur is that other that exists unnoticed until he is broken and remade.

Joker made me think. Of the unkindness that is all around us. Of the indignity that is heaped on those who don’t fit the box of ‘normal’. Of the humiliation the ‘other’ faces every day. Of the anger that is shown to those who are ‘inferior’ –in size, relationship, looks, material status, intellect, achievement. Kindness to me is the most important human virtue. Kindness is what is absent in most of human interactions.

There is unkindness in many forms in the way we are with our family members, those we befriend, those we know socially, those who work for us, those who provide services to us, and even those who are strangers. The expectation of a certain response evokes a chain of actions that goes unnoticed even by those who pat themselves as being nice. Not all unkindness elicits a dark anger, but it leaves a mark, even when it can’t be seen. Not all who are treated badly, or have mothers who mistreat them in childhood, or who have a mental issue, or are stuck in a dead-end life, or are mocked, or are humiliated, become bad. Not all broken people turn into homicidal psychopaths, maniacal sociopaths. Not all avenge the wrong done to them by some with hate against everyone. But who decides how someone is to react?

Cruel world

What are the rules for reacting to unkindness, humiliation, abuse, absence of opportunity, rejection, unacceptability? Who makes the framework for how one human being is to be in comparison to another? Who creates the barometer of the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ response? How are diverse hearts and minds expected to fit a singular factory mould uniform mode? Why are cruel things done without any fear of accountability? Why is mindless unkindness expected to trigger no negativity?

Why are strangers who make people uncomfortable for just looking different treated with disdain even when they are just trying to make a child laugh? Why do the jokers of this world shrivel into nothing spending their entire existence to make people laugh, smearing their painted smiles with their tears, seen by no one around them?

When did the world stop seeing? When did the world become so inattentive? When did the world become so unkind?

I thought of my son, Musa, 19, as I wrote about Joker. Musa has redefined kindness for me. Musa with his empathy beyond his years has made me become aware of my loud reprimands to people who work in my house, who work in different places I go to, for various reasons. My son has become my moral compass for everything I do. He stops me when I try to be judgmental about anyone. He teaches me to be patient when I lament the futility of something. When I raise my voice to someone who can’t answer back, Musa lectures me to apologise. I do.

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Despite being hot-tempered, Musa has never had a fight with a class-fellow, a friend, a cousin. Bullies became his friends as he dealt with their obnoxiousness with a detachment that stemmed from acceptance of the ‘other’. Anyone who ever worked in our house and those who still are working adore Musa. He respects them like he respects his family.

Musa with his innate empathy and kindness has taught me not to put people into boxes. I learn from him every day when we are together, and during our phone talks while he is away in college in New York. Every day, my son, helps me become a better mother. Every day, his words, his actions, make me wish to be a better human being. I’m trying. One kind word, one kind act, at a time. My son makes this increasingly darker world a brighter place. For me. For everyone who knows him.

I thank God, all the time, for my son.

Thank you, Musa, for just being.

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