Cast: Vijay Deverakonda, Rashmika Mandanna, Shruti Ramachandran
Director: Bharat Kamma
Dear Comrade, the film’s title, sounds good to read or to say out loud, but it is misleading. (In fact, it already misled people into believing that it’s a remake of Dulquer’s CIA. It’s not.) There is a gravitas the title lends without being asked and the film does nothing to justify the imagery it invokes. Except for the male protagonist’s grandfather who used to be a marxist in his prime, a few posters of communist leaders, and a Che Guevara poster—of course there is a Che poster—the film doesn’t bother much about communism or marxism. What it does, though, is effectively lend Bobby, Vijay Devarakonda, an abstract reason to justify his anger and fight. For everything and over everything. But if you can look past this minor issue, if it is one, the film has something substantial to say about sexual harassment bookended by a charming love story.
The film is about Bobby, Chaitanya to the people who only know his name, and Aparna Devi, Lilly to the people close to her. While Bobby doesn’t look beyond his college and Student Union, Lilly has great plans for her future. If Bobby prides himself for being anger-ready, she sees it for what it is: destruction and pain. Whether these two polar-opposite people manage to keep their love afloat, while also taking care of their own issues forms the rest of the story.
The debutant director, Bharat Kamma, gets many things right on his first attempt. Even though the film is a love story, he writes his two main characters as individuals. He isn’t her life’s passion, cricket is. He tries to be a part of her journey by being her comrade—the film equates it to the word companion, but his anger, a short-come, stops him midway. When he meets her after three years, he tears up. Not over their lost love, but over her lost future. He sees her as an individual first and lover next. And when she finally breaks open at the end, it’s not for him. She shouts because she cannot stand to listen to what her harasser has to say and ask. They love each other, and thanks to their palpable chemistry it comes across rather beautifully, but that’s not all they do. The sexual harassment angle too is dealt with surprising awareness. With films like this, saviour complex is inescapable, but the film calls itself out through Lilly. ‘Ask me what I want before dictating to me what to do’, says Lilly to a disappointed Bobby.
Bobby starts off the film by pissing in a corner and breaking anything that can be broken. His anger and the setup—supportive friends worrying about him—reminds one of Arjun and his rage. Even though his character goes through a supposedly drastic transition, he doesn’t feel different for more than a minute. That said, his anger feels different than Arjun’s. For starters, it almost never goes unchecked. After a fight, he is on the hospital bed and Lilly comes to him as says, ‘You have no right to put us all through this’, and leaves. And the provocation almost always comes from the outside. Vijay is great at playing characters that are arrogant and prideful of it. He does anger well, so well that people think it’s cool to be angry. It’s not. His pain, too, comes from an honest place and forces us to engage with it. That said, the scenes that deal with his student union, the foyer for his fist fights and bloody scars, and its politics feel more like a convenient device to give Vijay’s fans a few slow-mo moments of him punching people.
The film’s life, though, lies with Lilly. A state-level cricket player who aspires to one day represent her country. And she even gets a rousing scene where Bobby and his gang finds out that she is a professional player, when she hits the boundary with every ball. She is different things at different times—playful, intelligent, talented, depressed, clingy, and meek—and Rashmika does justice to everything her character is going through, even if the loud wails are a bit distracting. Unlike Bobby, she has her reasons to be the way she is. She is a player, so discipline and reasoning come naturally to her, and so does restraint. If she takes time to show her love for Bobby, it’s because she knows what that kind of anger can do to a person. If she finds it hard to call out the man who mistreats her, it’s because she is well-aware of the fate awaiting a woman who raises a finger at a man in power. If she uncharacteristically clings to Bobby, it’s because she is using him as a crutch to get over her trauma. Notice the way her dressing changes after the incident–the woman who used to be comfertable wearing frocks, covers herself with a duppatta every time she leaves home. This is one of those few films where the female lead is better written than the male one, and I don’t know whether to feel happy or complain.
An half-hour into the film, when Bobby sees Lilly for what she is and not as this annoying girl who keeps teasing her for having a crush on her elder cousin—played by the beautiful Shruti Ramachandran, he cannot help himself from falling for her. Sujith Sarang’s cinematography decides to mark this moment by focusing his camera on the gate whose pattern is shaped like a heart that’s either about to come together or have been cut into two halves. It’s cheesy, but it defines their love story perfectly. His usage of windows as a place where Bobby gets to know Lilly better is interesting as well. Coming to Justin Prabakaran, he uses his ethereal music to calm the film down. It works like magic for the high-wired first-half, but stretches the already long second-half. This probably doesn’t matter because the album is going to live in our minds longer than the film. By the virtue of me not noticing it, I’d say Sreejith Sarang’s editing is top-notch as well. So was Ramajaneyulu’s art design. Kakinada never seemed as beautiful in any other film.
Dear Comrade is not a flawless film. It does get better as it moves along, but still is longer than it has to be. The ending, too, feels rather clumsy and forced. Yes, it’s cathartic to stand-up to an abuser, but pushing people to do so isn’t the ideal way to go. But for all that it can do wrong with a huge star like Vijay at its helm, it comes through more often than it doesn’t. The film ends with a note from the team about sexual harassment in our society and how people need to be supportive of the victims. And it starts by saying, ‘This isn’t just Lilly’s story.’ But the film is Lilly’s story and that’s what made it a great experience for me.