Dear Comrade

Language: Telugu

Cast: Vijay Deverakonda, Rashmika Mandanna, Shruti Ramachandran

Director: Bharat Kamma

The first few scenes of Bharath Kammas Dear Comrade look like outtakes from Arjun Reddy. Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda) is a stud-rebel hero who pees all over conventional notions of heroism—quite literally so. He is introduced while relieving himself in a public toilet. A cigarette is stuck at the corner of his mouth. His walk is a drunken stagger. He lashes out at others, manufacturing a fight out of thin air, as though to relieve himself of his aggression. But hes hurting. His eyes are wet. He goes to a phone booth to make a call. When it doesnt get through, he smashes the glass walls, rips the receiver off, holds it in his bleeding hand and tries making the call… again. He doesnt realise the telephone is as dead as he feels inside. In a short span, Vijay Deverakonda has made the Devadas as Temperamental Rockstar™ slot his own, and when you see the films tagline (Fight for what you love), it appears that this love is the person (Lilly, played by Rashmika Mandanna) Bobby was making that bloody-handed call to. Red is, after all, a Comrades colour.

 

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But this tagline is a clever diversion. The early portions of Dear Comrade set up the Vijay Deverakonda persona we know—hes in the students union, and he keeps getting into fights. But despite the odd Che Guevara poster on the wall, Bobby isn’t particularly driven by ideology. He’s just a hothead. (His principal says hes too impulsive.) The film is about what happens when Bobby stops being a hothead (well, mostly) and grasps the ideology, the meaning of the word comrade hes been throwing around like loose change. Fight for what you love, it turns out, isnt about Bobby at all. Yes, he falls for Lilly and loses her at one point, but the fight“—as it unfolds in the second half—is Lillys, and what she loves isnt just Bobby but cricket. Shes a state-level player, but something happens (it’s #MeToo-related) and shes no longer on the team. Her return to the crease is what the dear comradeship is about.

Dear Comrade is, thus, a pretty unique film. On one level, it is a love story—and yet, it isnt quite that love story. On the one hand, there’s the considerable pleasure of spending time with a young, easy-on-the-eyes couple (with an easy-on-the ears Justin Prabhakaran score). But its not just about looks. Watch the scene where Bobby leaves Lillys house and bounds back up the stairs to embrace her. The tranquil look on Vijays face suggests a saint who, after a long penance, has found God. Of course, the director is aware of his stars stardom. When Bobby leaps in slo-mo and strikes someone on the head, the editor cuts to fireworks exploding in the sky, and theres a fuck-you moment that brought about a delighted roar in the theatre I was in. But that sort of thing can only take an actor so far. (It gets old very quickly.) What suggest Vijay Deverakonda may be here for a long innings are his exquisitely modulated reaction shots. (He squirms marvellously). And what grounds the character is the boy-next-door normalcy. Bobbys mother sends him off on errands to grind flour and get gas cylinders, and even in fights, there are times he gets beaten up. Vijay Deverakonda may be the next superstar, but Bobby, at least, is not superhuman.

Lilly, too, comes with a great deal of vulnerability. Theres a tragic event in her past, and it makes you see why she doesnt like—is scared of—Bobbys hotheadedness. Rashmika Mandanna is the films surprise, at once soft and steely. With her, too, the smallest scenes are so convincing—like when the camera moves up from her feet, while she is about to sleep, and catches her I am back with Bobby smile. When she hands over her cricketing gear to kids in the neighbourhood, you feel Lillys sadness but you dont see it. (It’s a special kind of performance when you sense an emotion from within.) Even Lilly’s clothes add to the performance. At first, she is almost always in skirts and when we see her in Indian finery, at her sisters wedding, we gasp along with Bobby. But in the second half, after the incident that causes her to stop playing, she is seen a lot in demure Indian clothes. Its like shes not just given up her cricketing pants but a part of her soul.

When Bobby tells Lilly he loves her (its a beautifully directed scene, in the midst of a wedding), she backs off. Thats the first sign that this is not just a love story. In the first half, Bobby wants Lilly to stay, but she leaves. In the post-interval portions, its the reverse—its as though their personalities have been swapped. Now, shes where Bobby was (satisfied with someone to love) and hes where she was (someone who realises theres more to life than love). And Dear Comrade turns Bobby into Lillys therapist, conscience, cheerleader—everything but her lover. (All the duets are exhausted in the first half.) Its not that Bobby has stopped loving Lilly. Its more that shes not the Lilly he fell in love with and getting her back to being that Lilly is his first priority as a “comrade”.

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This Bobby is calmer, wiser, less impulsive. When Lilly speaks of a prospective groom, based in Canada, he simply smiles. Arjun Reddy would have flown to Canada and broken a few bottles of lager on the mans head. So what turns him into a hothead again? Its learning what happened to Lilly. The writing (refreshingly) doesnt explain everything, but theres enough for us to connect the dots. When Bobby thought Lilly was gone for good, he mellowed down, but now that shes back and broken, the old Bobby resurfaces. But there are other places you wish the story had been shaped better. Does angst always have to find refuge in Leh/Ladakh? Given how important Bobbys grandfather is in the scheme of things, why does he come off like a doodle on the margins of the script? Why not spend a little more time (of the mammoth 170-minute duration) in detailing how Bobby found his calling in recording sounds and nature therapy? Would the new and improved Bobby do something as brashly impulsive as kidnap a psychiatric patient, convinced that he can fix her? The student-union portions are depressingly generic, but the bigger problem is the cheap melodrama in the parts that reveal the cause behind Lillys trauma. Arjun Reddy would have driven up to the screenwriters house and broken a few bottles of lager on the mans head.

 

At the end, fight for what you love becomes both Bobbys fight for Lilly and Lillys fight for justice. Dear Comrade contains all the traditional joys of mainstream cinema, like the brilliantly choreographed song sequence at a wedding. The world and the people around Bobby and Lilly (especially Shruti Ramachandran as Lillys older sister, with a very funny bit of history with Bobby) are so warm, so lived-in, so lovable that I would have happily settled for just a love story. But I was impressed by the films utter commitment to its other story. Theres a lovely stretch where Lilly learns Bobby was thinking about her when they were apart, and it looks like we are back in the love story, but literally the next second, we are yanked out of it. We are then yanked into a courtroom. These are not the beats I expected, and it felt amazing to watch the hero take a backseat to the heroines journey. Bobby isnt the saviour who snaps his fingers and frees Lilly from her trauma. He is forced to wait till she finds it within her to do what he wants her to do. Weve heard about this over and over in the #MeToo episodes. You cannot be out there with your story just because people want you out there. You have to be ready. The internal processing comes first, and its touching to see how Lilly almost runs away from this processing. She wants to forget the whole thing and start life anew with Bobby, but he knows thats just denial. And when she gets her moment, he isnt even in the same room. He sees her having her moment. He smiles. He leaves.

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