A Mirthless Joke

A still from Joker (2019), Image via Warner Brothers

Every great king has their wise jester. Every Akbar and Raja Krishnachandra, their Birbal and Gopal Bhar. Their role was to ridicule the system and not let the monarch think they are invincible. In their court culture of sycophancy and fear, it kept them grounded to reality.

But it’s not just the monarchy, today the need of the hour is a jester in all social establishments.

Unfortunately, religions do not believe in jesters who will satirize their archaic codes and statutes till they’re humiliated into changing. Neither do schools, who do not have jesters who call out the cruel systems of repressing, disciplining and grading students, creating social divisions in the impressionable minds of little children. These children will spend their lives believing that they are lesser than another, and that’s one of many paths to the mental unrest and social insecurity that cause so many problems in the world.

Today, on the Day of International Justice, I can’t help but ponder about the film Joker, a gut-wrenching performance by Joaquin Phoenix.

I went again and again to watch the film and marvel at the man and his craft. It made me question the way we’ve built society.

As I watched him play the troubled Arthur Fleck in 35mm, with wonder and awe, I travelled with the actor into the mental breakdown of a human being. The cold-hearted precision in the mayhem he created made me wonder at the fairness of it all.

The joker was sinister beyond belief yet convincingly mild and soft. His layered, unstable mind was portrayed with such depth that you lose track that he is the “villain”.

The dark, chilling, acclaimed graphic novel, “The Killing Joke”, by Alan Moore, is one of the inspirations behind 2019’s Joker

But what does this have to do with justice?
Well, the question that gnaws at me whenever I’m faced with such darkness is “where did it all start?”

I think most crimes and criminals arise from a space of rejection. And the ugly truth is, it starts very early on, and despite all our science we’ve yet been unable to determine how much is from the genes and how much is created by society.

This film makes you feel sorry for the Joker but you cringe when you watch him stab the bullies on the train. You wonder, “did they deserve it?” , and your lizard brain, buried somewhere deep inside your mind tells your emotional mind that yes, this is justice. But your rational mind says death cannot be the solution.

Arthur Fleck made me reflect on the juvenile correction centers all across India. I feel deep anguish as my heart reaches out to the young lives thwarted forever in these remand homes.

As you peep closer, devoid of judgement, you see the emptiness and innocence in the eyes of these little children of god. Was it their fault ever? That they were born in a space that robbed them of their childhood? They barely know good from bad.

On International Justice Day, we still have so many people languishing in prison for petty faults, right alongside the criminals who have done truly horrific acts. And we put them together because we don’t understand what made each of them what they are and what to do with them.

If that weren’t bad enough, dig deeper and you will find criminals in all kinds of legitimate establishments. They roam free, unchained, unencumbered by guilt and protected by money and society. Many will likely live a life far more successful than the ordinary citizen and die a peaceful death surrounded by their friends and family.

This is the mirthless joke that Phoenix’s movie and titular character are all about.

Justice is always difficult. When is it our right to forgive and when is it our duty to punish? How can we ever know we are right? Does that mean we should stand back, refuse to choose and watch the world burn around us?

But this much we all can say with certainty: children are essential to humanity’s future, so justice cannot let their suffering languish in obscurity. The cases for children that need closure must end and the men and women that truly need the jail uniform must be punished. Let us endeavour to choose wisely.

On International World Justice day, let’s pledge to understand that human beings are all born with the potential for good and evil, and it is circumstances that decide which side they will fall into and it is circumstances that may help them find a way out into something better.

May wisdom guide us, and may justice prevail.

I wrote this article in honour of International Justice Day (17th July, every year). Here are some resources if you’re interested in reading more about India’s criminal justice system, especially about how we deal with juvenile delinquents.

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