Cast: Vijay Deverakonda, Rashmika Mandanna, Shruti Ramachandran
Director: Bharat Kamma
The first few scenes of Bharath Kamma's 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 he's hurting. His eyes are wet. He goes to a phone booth to make a call. When it doesn't get through, he smashes the glass walls, rips the receiver off, holds it in his bleeding hand and tries making the call… again. He doesn't 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 film's 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 Comrade's colour.
But this tagline is a clever diversion. The early portions of Dear Comrade set up the Vijay Deverakonda persona we know—he's in the student's 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 he's 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" he's been throwing around like loose change. "Fight for what you love", it turns out, isn't 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 Lilly's, and "what she loves" isn't just Bobby but cricket. She's a state-level player, but something happens (it's #MeToo-related) and she's 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 isn't 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 it's not just about looks. Watch the scene where Bobby leaves Lilly's house and bounds back up the stairs to embrace her. The tranquil look on Vijay's face suggests a saint who, after a long penance, has found God. Of course, the director is aware of his star's stardom. When Bobby leaps in slo-mo and strikes someone on the head, the editor cuts to fireworks exploding in the sky, and there's 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. Bobby's 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. There's a tragic event in her past, and it makes you see why she doesn't like—is scared of—Bobby's hotheadedness. Rashmika Mandanna is the film's 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 Lilly's sadness but you don't 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 sister's 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. It's like she's not just given up her cricketing pants but a part of her soul.
When Bobby tells Lilly he loves her (it's a beautifully directed scene, in the midst of a wedding), she backs off. That's 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, it's the reverse—it's as though their personalities have been swapped. Now, she's where Bobby was (satisfied with someone to love) and he's where she was (someone who realises there's more to life than love). And Dear Comrade turns Bobby into Lilly's therapist, conscience, cheerleader—everything but her lover. (All the duets are exhausted in the first half.) It's not that Bobby has stopped loving Lilly. It's more that she's not the Lilly he fell in love with and getting her back to being that Lilly is his first priority as a "comrade".
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 man's head. So what turns him into a hothead again? It's learning what happened to Lilly. The writing (refreshingly) doesn't explain everything, but there's enough for us to connect the dots. When Bobby thought Lilly was gone for good, he mellowed down, but now that she's 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 Bobby's 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 Lilly's trauma. Arjun Reddy would have driven up to the screenwriter's house and broken a few bottles of lager on the man's head.
At the end, "fight for what you love" becomes both Bobby's fight for Lilly and Lilly's 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 Lilly's 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 film's utter commitment to its other story. There's 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 heroine's journey. Bobby isn't 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. We've 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 it's 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 that's just denial. And when she gets her moment, he isn't even in the same room. He sees her having her moment. He smiles. He leaves.