[Produced Directed & Edited: Raj Kapoor/ Story &Screenplay: K. A. Abbas / Cinematography: Radhu Karmakar/ Lyrics: Neeraj,Shailendra, Shaily Shailendra & Hasrat Jaipuri /Music: Shankar Jaikishan/ Playback: Manna Dey, Mukesh, Mohd.Rafi and Asha Bhosle/ Starring: Raj Kapoor, Simi Garewal, Manoj Kumar, Rishi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Dara Singh, Kseniya Ryabinkina, Padmini and Rajendra Kumar/Release date: 18th December, 1970]
Raj Kapoor was one of the biggest international stars from the early 50s till early 70s. In 1967, while in London he and Krishna Kapoor attended the evening show of Fiddler on the Roof featuring Chaim Topol at West End. Chaim Topol, an ardent Raj Kapoor motioned for silence after the play was over and requested Raj Kapoor to come on to the stage saying that there was a misconception that he was Israel’s most popular actor, in actuality he was the second most popular man after Raj Kapoor! Raj Kapoor was hailed by a standing ovation.
It was sometime then in 1964 that he had begin pondering on his pet project that turned in to an obsession bringing near ruination and calumny. Mera Naam Joker was six years in the making, with Raj Kapoor investing much of his own personal fortune and himself. It was distributed under the RK Films banner, marked the debut of Rishi Kapoor and was shot on location in India and Russia. The film sank at the box office brought Raj Kapoor close to total bankruptcy and the famed RK studios faced the peril of auctioneer’s hammer in order to pay off the debts. The film however has garnered critical praise in later years, and film experts now label it a ‘misunderstood masterpiece’! At the Filmfare it gathered trophies for Best Music Director( Shankar Jaikishan), Best Cinematographer(Radhu Karmakar), Best Male Playback Award (Manna Dey; Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo), Best Director Award (Raj Kapoor) and Best Sound Recordist ( Allauddin Khan Qureshi).
Raj Kapoor exposed four and a half lakh feet of film for Mera Naam Joker. Many different cuts of the film are known to exist, the movie’s censor certificate certifies the film’s length as being 6989.50 metres or 255 minutes. At four hours and fifteen minutes Mera Naam Joker was the second Hindi film to have two intervals, the first one being also another Raj Kapoor production, Sangam (1964).
Simi’s big break came with Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker where she was the object of desire of the young Rishi Kapoor, the Anglo-Indian teacher Miss Mary,. The role was powerful but it created a furore as Simi dare to bare her derriere in a conservative India. It has been rumoured that Simi and Raj Kapoor were more than director and muse during the making of Mera Naam Joker. Simi was hesitant about Conrad Rook’s Siddhartha because of the bold scenes but it was Raj Kapoor who convinced her to accept the role. Satyajit Ray met her at Raj Kapoor’s house during the preview of Mera Naam Joker and cast her in his Aranyer Din Ratri (1969).
Raj Kapoor liked his sagas long was not a secret lost to anyone, the showman of Bollywood outdid himself with this melodramatic story of a circus clown whose brief unspoken love with the three women was full of shy smiles and coy glances. It was for all to see that after Sangam, the actor engrossed in his magnificent obsession never gave two hoots to his looks and the cardinal truth that as lead he should have been eating and drinking less. To compensate for his rotundness and do justice to a marathon like script Raj Kapoor packed dollops of oomph to titillate the audiences of 70s! Besides the so called ‘bold scenes’ of Simi he locked lips with the Russian actress Ksiena Rambiankina.
Sharmila Tagore was the original choice for the role of Marina in Raju’s life. But later this role went to the Russian beauty Kseniya Ryabinkina, a 21 year old professional ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Kseniya Ryabinkina admits that she got thousands of letters as fan mail for years for the movie and despite 15 to 16 films to her credit she’s still remembered as the Marina of Raj Kapoor.
The third actress that co-starred with Raj Kapoor in the film was the buxom south Indian beauty Padmini, with whom he was allegedly involved since their sojourn in Moscow in 1957 right till the making of Jis desh main Ganga Behti hai (1960). Raj Kapoor made the screen sizzle in the song Ang Lag ja Balma, Padmini shed the male disguise for a flesh colored saree without a blouse and went searching for Raj Kapoor in the middle of the night drenched to the bone in the torrential rain! Raj Kapoor’s songbird Lata unhappy with the lyrics of Ang lag ja balma refused to sing for Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (1970) and after the film flopped, he had no choice but to go back to her to sing for Dimple Kapadia in Bobby (1973).
Shailendra had written three songs of Mera Naam Joker plus the opening verse of its theme song- Jeena yahan, marna yahan. Raj Kapoor had been given the first line by Shailendra years ago but the lyricist just would not sit down and finish the song. After Teesri Kasam bombed and an ailing Shailendra just before being hospitalized went to Raj Kapoor’s “Cottage” and wrote the entire song and signed at the bottom of the page, which meant that it was final and unchangeable.
The song, Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo by Neeraj which fetched Manna Dey his second Film-fare award, was six-minute-long song and one of the most poignant numbers in Indian movie history. Manna Dey later said that he thought that the song was not challenging enough as it was more like a talking song and had to imagine very hard how Raj Kapoor would enact it on screen and make his singing attuned for the great actor! However it is a tribute to Neeraj that the Song remains evergreen due to the lyrics rather than singing style! Neeraj and Hasrat Jaipuri also contributed three songs each.
Raj Kapoor was an icon in USSR on account of his bubbly optimism his characters brought, a soothing balm that the people needed after the Second World War. In the mid-1960s while in London during negotiations with a Russian circus to be part of the film he realized that he had to be in Moscow to seal the deal. Raj Kapoor landed in Moscow comfortable in thought that he had the visa. And despite the valid documents Raj Kapoor was welcomed. He waited outside the airport unannounced for a taxi! But by then Muscovites had realized that Raj Kapoor was in their midst. He boarded his taxi which did not seem to start, a befuddled Raj Kapoor to his pleasant surprise found that the Muscovites had lifted the car on their shoulders!
A special sweet box called the ‘Joker Assortment was made by famous confectionery JB Mangharam & Co in Gwalior for the Russian release of Mera Naam Joker with the markings in Hindi, English and Russia. Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker and Sangam were the last two movies to be shown at Delhi’s 85-year-old Regal cinema hall that closed down in 2017. Raj Kapoor used to visit the theatre regularly and host premieres of several films released under the banner of RK films. And six months later ironically the iconic Mera Naam Joker mask and costumes worn by Nargis to Aishwarya were among the memorabilia lost in a fire at R K Studios.
The clown lives with an inherent certain dichotomy; on the outside he is funny, gregarious and happy, a consummate performer. But just scratch him a bit and we find on the inside he lives with definite sadness, departing only temporarily, when he is on stage making audiences laugh. Mera Naam Joker was the most earnest ode of Raj Kapoor to this dichotomy, the lifeline of any entertainer!
(The famous poet Gopaldas Neeraj (1925-2018) wrote three songs in this film. The most famous ditty that got Manna Dey the Filmfare- Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo- was written by Neeraj)