Director: Amal Neerad
Cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Karthika Muralidharan, Julio Antonio Alonzo, Soubin Shahir, Dileesh Pothan. John Vijay
Amal Neerad’s previous film, Iyobinte Pusthakam, began with an Emergency-era communist, the narrator. And through this character, we slipped into a Raj-era flashback that showed glimpses of how a prosperous estate owner’s son (the Fahadh Faasil character) began to sow the seeds for a classless society. But the rest of the story had little to do with communism. Red was the dominant colour, all right, but it was more due to all the blood being spilt. The meat of the movie was about the fissures in a family. It was The Brothers Karamazov-meets-King Lear.
Neerad’s follow-up, Comrade in America, aspires to be far more political. It begins with a 199th-birthday wish to Karl Marx. (The film was released on Marx’s birthday, May 5.) It ends with a dedication “to the refugees of the world.” And the story, in between, is about Aji Mathew (Dulquer Salmaan), a staunch communist: even his book of dues at the local street-food seller is titled “Bolivian Diary.” Why? Because the Latin American country is where Che Guevara met his end. The film’s title itself is an homage to the revolutionary, who refuses to die in the movies, but was, in real life, assassinated under orders from the CIA. Guess what Comrade in America acronyms to!
After Sakhavu and Oru Mexican Aparatha, Comrade in America is the third Malayalam movie this year to depict its leading man as an ardent communist. Take the hero-introduction scene. The police have subdued an uprising of party workers demanding the resignation of the Finance Minister. Then, we see a bottle bomb being lit. The hands belong to Aji, but we don’t see the face – its bottom half is covered with a red scarf with Guevara imagery. He hurls the bomb. Soon, the others who have fallen rise. The scene establishes Aji as a fiery leader. We see him through the smoke haze caused by the bomb – the screen simmers along with him.
The title suggests an ironic fish-out-of-water comedy: a communist in the capital of capitalism. But for the longest time, we’re stuck in Kerala, with the usual mix of action, romance and comedy
But like many things in Comrade, this scene doesn’t really fit – for unlike the characters played by Tovino Thomas in Oru Mexican Aparatha and Nivin Pauly in Sakhavu, Aji’s motives are modest. Dulquer’s box-office clout may demand him to participate in an action scene where he sends someone flying out of the windshield of a bus, but as he tells his girlfriend (a US citizen named Sarah, played by Karthika Muralidharan), he doesn’t want to change the country. He just wants to impact a few people around him. She’s one of them. She asks him to explain what communism is. He says it’s when you share the contents of your lunchbox with a classmate who’s forgotten to bring hers.
The title suggests an ironic fish-out-of-water comedy: a communist in the capital of capitalism. But for the longest time, we’re stuck in Kerala, with the usual mix of action, romance and comedy. The humour works (largely due to Soubin Shahir and Dileesh Pothan), and there are some nice scenes between Aji and his Congress-affiliated father (Siddique) – but we keep waiting for that flight to take off, take this comrade to America, and that doesn’t happen until interval point.
It’s the scenario explored in Gautham Menon’s Tamil drama, Vaaranam Aayiram. Sarah returns to the US. Aji vows to find her, marry her. Aji doesn’t have a visa, and he needs to be there in two weeks, else she will be married off to someone else. It’s not for nothing that an early scene shows Aji reading David J. Danelo’s The Border: Exploring the U.S.-Mexican Divide. He decides to travel to Nicaragua, then to Mexico, then slip into the US…
It’s commendable that what could have been a romantic drama of a boy crossing the proverbial seven seas in order to get the girl (as in the Menon film) is instead a look at illegal immigrants, one of the most burning issues in the world today. But that’s an entirely different movie, one about suffering and poverty and unsympathetic border-patrol agents. Comrade becomes that other movie, forgetting all about the romance that initiated this quest in the first place.
Suddenly, we’re watching a humanitarian screed, a frustratingly facile one, with Aji being joined by others attempting to enter the US illegally. John Vijay plays a Sri Lankan named Arul, and in one scene he’s listening to Thenpandi Cheemayile from Nayakan. You think the song is saying something about being a stranger in a strange land, that Aji shares Velu Nayakan’s plight – but it’s just so that Arul’s heart can swell with Tamil pride. “World-class,” he remarks about the song – and we agree. But the “moment” is odd. If you want to break the seriousness with a world-class Ilayaraja number, then why not use a love song and remind us why Aji is here?
Dulquer is always watchable, but his character made more sense in the first half, when he narrated his love story to his heroes: Marx, Lenin and Guevara
None of the big issues make an impact, and none of the people are written convincingly. Not Arul. Not the girl (Chandini Sreedharan) who joins Arul and Aji, but is really only there to perform “second heroine” duties. (Her last scene is laughable.) Not even Sarah, who’s such a paper-thin construct that you’d find it difficult to make a greeting card out of her, let alone an epic/romantic screenplay. She should be like Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships. Sarah wouldn’t launch a backwater shore-crossing.
And what about Aji? Does he not deserve a scene where he realises how puny his matters of the heart are in comparison to the horrors faced by his companions? Dulquer is always watchable, but his character made more sense in the first half, when he narrated his love story to his heroes: Marx, Lenin and Guevara. I’m serious! They appear before him, like Gandhi did in front of Munna Bhai. Much later, in a communist party office in Nicaragua, the same three luminaries are mere photos on a wall. It’s a great touch that shows how youngsters in Kerala have taken these men to heart, how they’re still living, breathing inspirations. It also shows what the film could have been.