In a mainstream Telugu film, the fight scene acts as a kind of coronation, allowing the star to take his place as the hero. Each blow in the fight scene has two parts: the star’s pose — typically confident, assured in his aggression — and the impact of the violence on his nemesis, who we see fearing the blow, bleeding, or hurtling through the air after being struck. The more impactful the blow (usually accentuated by a loud sound and 300-style slow-motion), the wider the gulf in power between the leading man and the film’s everyman, allowing the star to take the throne as the hero — the centre of power and attention in the film.
Frequently, the hero solves the dramatic conflict of the film through a climactic fight scene with the antagonist. Typically, he has no choice: he has been compelled to act violently; and the violent act turns out to be the best solution to the problem. Through its positioning in the narrative, violent display of power gains the film’s sanction and affirms itself as a fundamental component in our cultural idea of masculinity.
Bharat Kamma‘s Dear Comrade grapples with this traditional idea of the hero’s masculinity through the journey of Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda): a hotheaded leftist student leader who, throughout the first half of the film, seems to be perpetually itching for a fight.
The first fight scene in the movie occurs in a local fair: a student of his college is stalked and harassed by a local politician’s brother and his gang, and Bobby and his friends head to the fair to confront them. When the stalker is unapologetic, Bobby launches into an attack. His friends try and reprimand him: they were only here to talk; but it’s too late, there is retaliation, and the fight kicks off. All the familiar elements of a mass fight are present: a rising percussion in the soundtrack, goons are whistled for, a chase, Bobby dealing numerous blows. However, the director frustrates our attempts to appreciate this as a conventional fight — there are no shots of the goons’ fearful faces, and little to no shots of bodies being contorted or hurled by Bobby. When Bobby leaps into the air to deliver a blow with a rod, the film cuts to fireworks: we get the pose, but we don’t see the blow land. When he finally confronts his nemesis, he is struck and wounded. His friends tell him to back off from the fight, but he forges ahead.
Here, the undercutting of the fight in the edit turns to an explicit denouncing — the frame rate drops — suggesting a state of disorientation, and a mournful violin plays in the soundtrack as Bobby begins raining punches on the stalker. The shot holds on him in the final stretch and refuses to show us the impact of his blows or the stalker’s bloodied face. Bobby is the subject of this shot — not the power he exerts on his nemesis — and by holding on Vijay Deverakonda’s crazed expression, the film suggests that what needs fixing here may be Bobby himself.
By denying us the schadenfreude of witnessing the impact of Bobby’s violence, the film essentially denies him the power to rally an audience behind his fight, and consequently, his claim to herodom through the use of violence.
This subversion continues: a fight in a gully ends abruptly when a villain is accidentally run over by a vehicle. Later, Bobby smashes a goon against a window, but we cut from an exterior shot of the window breaking to a fearful Lilly (Rashmika Mandanna), and then to Lilly’s POV of a raging Bobby framed through a broken window.
This undermining of Bobby’s violence in the editing and shot selection complements the narrative beats that deal with this theme in the script: Bobby ends up arrested, hospitalised, and ultimately, separated from Lilly due to his proclivity for diving headlong into fights. The film is, essentially, denying its sanction to Bobby’s violence; as Lilly points out, nobody seems to be better off due to him fighting.
Bobby’s claim to herodom is only acknowledged in the second half when he rejects his earlier ways and returns to stand up for Lilly. Here, too, the movie has a complicated relationship with his violence. The most conventionally satisfying scene of violence Bobby gets is when he beats up Lilly’s molester (we get the pose, the dialogues, the blow, and the impact) — but this action has mixed consequences —it forces Lilly to be dragged into an investigation and a hearing against her will.
For a film with an aggressive hothead for a hero, and a sexual predator for a villain, the resolution doesn’t come from the hero physically fighting the antagonist; Instead, Bobby’s arc closes out with him proudly looking on as Lilly confronts her oppressor: he has (somewhat problematically) enabled it, but it is her fight now, and he’s happy to watch from the sidelines.
Dear Comrade questions mainstream ideas of gender roles handed to us through commercial cinema. A film that starts out being about Bobby ends up being about Lilly. Lilly’s hero moment arrives before Bobby’s —when she wins the cricket match for his team. When she says she wants to give up her career and settle down with Bobby, the film plays this as a dissonant note — her giving in to patriarchy — whereas a commercial film from a decade ago would likely play this as a sign of “true love”.
Through its fight scenes and Bobby’s arc, Dear Comrade challenges the role of violence as a constitutive element in commercial cinema’s conception of the hero. It asks if heroes can engage with the dramatic conflict of their movies without resorting to that old, satisfying, cinematic expression of their masculinity — the punch.