I belong to a generation when most children in middle-class homes were not allowed to touch comics leave alone read them. My otherwise liberal father had placed a strict ban on comic books at home. By the time I grew up and got to know of DC and Batman and a few of the other famous superhuman comic characters, my curiosity had waned and I was by then addicted to the printed book mainly focused on Agatha Christie’s works.

So both DC and Marvel are entirely unknown territories so far as my reading habits and film watching are concerned. The only comic strips I had access were the Phantom comics and Tom & Jerry that appeared every week in the now-extinct Illustrated Weekly of India. The Walt Disney comics were permitted as they regularly appeared in the Sunday tabloid of a national daily.

I think I am the only adult person around who went to watch Joker without any preconceived notions or frames of reference drawn from around 20 different jokers who have appeared as the nemesis of Batman on cinema, television and animation films. I watched the film as an independent film perhaps rooted in an inspiration from a comic character I have no clue about.

From this very individualistic perspective, I watched the film without any bias for or against the protagonist and came out with a brief background history from my growing grandson who knows everything one needs to know about the Batman-Joker antagonism. Fortunately for me, this film goes behind the beginning of Batman who we see as a little boy and the story is all about the evolution of the Joker from a simple, unhappy man to an avenging killer.

Arthur Fleck is a failure – in life, in family and in his chosen profession – to become a stand-up comedian. He belongs to a fragmented family and lives in a dowdy apartment with his ailing and ageing mother but takes very good care of her. He tries to eke out a survival mode by working as a joker for shops and so on but is heckled, beaten, and reduced to a ghost of a human being. Why? Just because he is wearing a joker’s costume and a green wig and looks ludicrous and as his income source shows, barely living? He cannot do anything about it because he is also afflicted by a strange mental condition – he cannot stop himself from breaking into loud spells of cackling laughter without provocation of any kind and we are also told about his long spell at a mental hospital. He carries a card in his pocket that briefly explains his condition but no one is moved.

He is a simple man easily convinced by a colleague of his into carrying a gun for his “safety” as the colleague says and his life turns over completely. He sheds his naiveté, his innocence and his goodness and steps into the world out there. There is not much difference however, in the kind of response he gets. But when he turns on his gun and shoots down three young men in a train to “punish” them for harassing a woman commuter, all hell breaks loose and everyone goes hunting for a man wearing a joker’s make-up and outfit.

At one point, he asks himself, “Is the world out there crazier or is it me?” His interactions with his psychiatrist comes to zilch when he points out that she has never really listened to what he was saying and doled out so-called “solutions” with rote answers. So, his anger is not directed against the upcoming Mayor or on the television live star comedian but at the entire world that has turned him into a joke when all he wanted to be was a stand-up comedian. The focus, however, is directed at the people he felt have wronged him terribly in life and his actions are aimed at destroying them which he manages to do.

But along the way, unwittingly, a growing number of followers are taken by his fearless attack on the haves especially the powerful and very rich man who his mother makes him believe, is his illegitimate father who turned his back on him and his mother. How true is this rumor? The film unfolds the answer and many others in a film that is one of the most character-centric films I have seen in recent times that also cuts neatly across time and space and language and culture.

Arthur creates the incidents and also gains control over them as he moves along, from one violent act to the next, alarming the police force which, acting on reports that a joker is at the centre of the killings, is faced with hundreds of men wearing the joker’s mask, efficiently giving the police the slip.

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips which he jointly wrote with Scott Silver, according to the director, is not inspired by the earlier jokers of the DC series on Batman but is made up of bits and pieces of different jokers in different films and serials. The story goes that Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Arthur, researched and worked on Arthur for two years and had to shed fifty pounds off his body weight to acquire the skinny frame the character demanded.

He looks really skinny and as he grieves over his destiny and the joke his life has turned into, you begin to sympathize with him entirely, even given that he commits matricide to get back on his mother who he holds responsible for the abuse he experienced as a boy and for being interned in a mental home when his uncontrolled and spontaneous laughter was not a “condition” his mother had insisted but his nature, inherited from a delusional, half-crazy mother!

The scene that shows Arthur soaping and bathing his mother in the bathtub is moving as is the tiny kissing scene with the young single mother down the hall and how she begins to really like him till she is scared by his unpredictable behaviour. Another moving scene is when Arthur meets the little Bruce who later becomes Batman through the gates of the big house, stretches his hand to touch him and draw out his lips to resemble a smile. The entire film is dotted with tiny nuanced scenes that underline the pathetic underpinning of Arthur’s life and nature.

Who is the Arthur? Is he the man who does not wear his mask but only a very sad and depressed expression on his face which sometimes crinkles up in a smile, also sad? Or is the Joker wearing the ugly wig and the thick make-up and face paint who sets out on a killing spree, stretches his painted mouth to its edges to add to the bizarre effect that widens to a scary smile? Throughout the world, masks are used for their expressive power as a feature of masked performance – both ritually and in various theatre traditions.

The ritual and theatrical definitions of mask usage frequently overlap and merge but still provide a useful basis for categorisation. In Joker, the mask holds different layers of meaning – is the mask the real face of Arthur or is the Arthur minus the mask the real man? His is not a schizophrenic personality so there are no two Arthurs. Arthur consciously paints the mask on to his face to change his stance from the sad young man trapped in a world he cannot understand or recognize to a man with the determination to take on the evil influences in the world.

Phoenix gives an award-worthy performance, while the other characters offer striking relief in their personal angst and villainy and pretensions (the psychiatrist) to Arthur. His dancing is graceful, natural and beautiful that perhaps brings out the basic goodness in his nature and his constant search for happiness he never found. The sad look in his eyes without the mask is as beautiful as is the ugly grimace of his cosmetic smile in his avenging version.

The music is very lyrical against a sky often filled with the flames of a rising fire, while the sound design is as jarring and as loud as it should be considering the mayhem that happens whenever Joker is at his tricks or his alter egos – hundreds of them – who continue his act of destruction. The violence in the film is jarring, bloody and full of gore never mind if Arthur is the victim or his is the victimizer emphasizing that basically, there is not much difference between the two subject to different circumstances.

The cinematography is magnificent, electrifying and shocking at times, and matches the script and the characters to a tee.

Joker, like its protagonist, is an unhappy, dark and very depressing film. But mind you, that should not allow you to give it a miss!