Joker and Fandry: Out of Society's Dark Shadows
Both heroes are rendered powerless and lonely
In the climax scene of Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi classic Fandry, the lead character Jabya hurls a heavy stone at the perpetrators of atrocities. Here the film ends abruptly, showcasing Jabya’s unbearable despair and angst against that society. In deep rage, he forcefully throws the stone at the audience. We never learn what happens to him after that violent reaction to violence.
In Joker the character Arthur Fleck represents similar angst against urban society. He is akin to a grown-up Jabya: both suffer similar kinds of humiliation, violence and social alienation and precarity. Both crave dignified recognition or some semblance of warmth from the dominant class. That society is not only indifferent to their concerns, but often violates their dignity and hurts them psychically and physically.
Mainstream cinema often puts an invisibility cloak on the dark side of our society and showcases the normative and popular part that helps sustain the prevailing moral order. Hollywood on occasion shows the crass underbelly of society, crafting unconventional heroes for the purpose. Films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers, American Dreams, etc. disturbed the conventional narratives of popular cinema and presented negative protagonists. Joker falls in similar lineage.
In the case of Hindi cinema we have very few such examples. Psychologically distressed or traumatised characters are typically portrayed as crude villains (Darr, Sangharsh, Raman Raghav, etc.) or submissive dependents (Sadma, Ugly, Taare Zameen Par, etc.). In so doing these films escape having to critically dissect the society that produces and reproduces such painful mental conditions.
Both Joker and Fandry are reflections of the tragic negative Hero, born of the brutal tragedies of our urban and rural lives. The disconnect between rich and poor in Joker and the segregation between dominant and Dalit castes in Fandry perpetually create horrifying situations.
Both heroes are rendered powerless and lonely. To retrieve and protect themselves, Jabya and Arthur adopt violent methods. This is not their subjective condition or personal choice. Their oppressive social and political environment nurtures it.
Joker is a blunt critic of modern capitalist society. The celebrated virtues of liberal democracy hold almost no meaning in transforming the lives of ordinary people in Gotham City (representing New York). People suffer in abject poverty, the government neglects the poor and the habitats of the rich are clinically distanced from the lower classes. Economic inequality, rising depression and hopelessness are the norms defining the city.
Such terrible conditions will produce only alienated and traumatised individuals. The society of the dominant has no mechanism to integrate and respect them as equal human beings.
Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant in portraying the mentally disturbed clown) survives without any meaningful existence and struggles for subsistence. Relentless social humiliations, personal tragedies and violent incidents wound and convert him into a murderer.
At the end of the film, the Joker is shown as representative of the repressed masses and heralded as the new icon of the lower strata, those people who are disgruntled and alienated because of the oppressive social and economic order.
This gives a twist to the sequels, where Arthur will remerge as super villain against that virtuous protector of Gotham, Batman.
Similarly, Fandry’s portrayal of village life turns on the moral insanity in which people are conditioned to live. Casteist society has no room for cordial fraternal bonding. There is no redemption in this world, which with every passing day pushes Jabya’s family to the margin and forces them into a dark dungeon of depression.
Casteist society is designed to prevent human beings from interacting with freedom and love. In Fandry, village life is based on caste compartments violently arranged in exploitative hierarchies. These segregations strangle human freedom and constrict human love. This casteist madness creates a moral void.
Jabya and his family are condemned, it seems, to survive in this terrible social space. The dominant groups mock and belittle him as impure, dark or wretched and perpetrate daily humiliation and violence upon him. None of them see Jabya as an innocent teenager with much the same desires and sentiments as their own.
Repeatedly they contaminate Jabya’s childhood with brutality, and at the end his rebellious act of throwing the stone at audience and camera and screen, our vision, somehow redeems his anger…
We never learn if Jabya becomes a popular hero like Arthur Fleck, or whether dominant caste people murder him. His caste identity may prevent a casteist audience from imagining him as a hero. We may imagine him only as a helpless abused child, whom the powerful social groups will consume quite easily.
However, Jabya stores the potential to emerge as an angry young man, keeping the fire of revenge burning in his crushed heart, almost like Arthur. His violent act at the end may liberate him from enforced social servitude and its psychological burden. But does it liberate us?
Disciplined social norms are on the ascendant and in the dominant moral order which calls itself “middle class” any recognised aberration is condemned as strange, abnormal, pathological or absurd, and therefore liable for punishment.
This order does not consider increasing numbers of people, the psychically wounded, and migrants and refugees, and vast entire groups such as Dalits or Muslims to be people. It considers them devoid of moral values, dangerous outsiders, inferior and unknowable, and therefore expendable. It says they are not human like us.
Casteist society is similarly based on the authoritarian discipline of mind (tradition) and body (violence) so as to restrict human beings’ natural feelings of love, compassion and humility.
It teaches us to see castes lower than us as filthy, mere bodies, condemned to suffer for past sins. In social interactions therefore - no matter our lot at the hands of higher caste classes - we obstruct the lower untouchables, unmeritorious, brutes, law breakers or iconoclasts.
This is why casteists view any lower caste claim for equality or freedom as a radical or rootless slogan, detrimental to their great traditional social heritage. They punish the human desire to love and be loved. Jabya falls in love with a higher-caste woman and becomes liable to be punished. Society punishes Jabya for his natural birth, it punishes Arthur for his natural laugh.
Capitalism and casteism have no ethical tools to envision society as a cordially engaged human milieu based on mutual affection or reciprocal understanding. In them the politically, economically, socially worst-offs, many disempowered individuals from a few dispossessed social groups, are coercively alienated from civic life and repeatedly wounded.
For long these alienated masses have remained invisible in dominant representations. Joker and Fandry imagine a sphere in which these brutalised rise in anger, claiming the thrones and the streets, and burn to ashes everything this bourgeois social order.