Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dear Comrade, I bow to you

I am neither a film tracker nor a trade guru.  All I know from several tweets and news articles is that Bharat Kamma’s Dear Comrade did not fare too well commercially.  I am not going to engage in the futile exercise of analyzing what might have dimmed its commercial prospects.  Instead, let me focus on why it is one of the most important modern day films made about man-woman relationships.

Dear Comrade is the story of Bobby and Lilly, a couple who fall in love.  Nothing novel or revolutionary about that.  But their love story has shades, nuance and depth that have been seldom witnessed on screen.  Bobby, essayed by Vijay Deverakonda is an angry young man.  Nothing earth shattering about that either.  We have seen Vijay portray similar shades in Arjun Reddy.  But what sets Dear Comrade apart is the arc of his character.  He is a rebel without a cause who develops one.  Anchorless at the start of the film, his character discovers himself and realizes what will give his relationship with Lilly enduring fulfillment.  Initially, he is a belligerent college-going kid who resorts to violence at the drop of a bat…err…hat.  The bat, hat, the feather in the cap are all Lilly’s (Rashmika Mandanna), the best etched character of the film.  She is a gifted cricketer who falls for Bobby but lets go of him when she realizes that his impulsiveness and aggression could wreck their future.  They break up, but her future, in cricket and otherwise, is wrecked by an unexpected source.

Years pass by and Bobby and Lilly reunite under trying circumstances. (Spoilers ahead; skip to next paragraph to avoid spoilers.) Lillly, a silent, suffering victim of a horrific MeToo incident, shuns cricket and sinks into deep depression.  This is where Dear Comrade starts to glitter luminously.  Sure, it is Bobby who aids her recovery.  But he seeks to empower her, not just ‘rescue’ her.  He shows her a path but is content following her, not leading her.  He seeks to be a pillar for Lilly to lean on, not a crutch for her to rest on.  In short, Bobby is one of the most secure, thoughtful leading men you have ever witnessed on screen. 

For a while, Lilly refuses to acknowledge what Emma Thompson eloquently said in the movie, Burnt – “there is strength in needing.”  She initially distances herself from her demons, choosing silent, solitary suffering in order to avoid public humiliation.  Sure, it is the criminal who stunted her professional growth who deserves all the shaming, not her.  But as we have seen in real life, it is easier said than done.  Justice is not delivered to victims of MeToo on a silver platter.  The male-dominated society that we unfortunately belong to is far from being conducive to victims who speak the truth, who seek justice.  As a result, Lilly’s initial silence (which she addresses in the climax) is real, painful yet perfectly understandable.  Bobby, and by extension the film, refuses to judge Lilly.  The standout acting moment of the film, to me, is the sequence where Bobby hugs Lilly tightly after hearing the truth about her past.  The lead pair is marvelous in this scene, as they are during the entire film. 

The fact that Bobby wants Lilly to fight the fight herself despite her unwillingness to do so, could be seen both ways.  That he is imposing something on her that she does not want.  Or that he wants her to not lose sight of her first love, cricket.  He realizes that deep down she would rather be playing the game than sitting in the balcony of her house, watching young kids play.  Regardless of whether you think he does the ‘right’ thing for Lilly, it is hard to argue one thing.  His focus is on her, as he seeks to bring out her innate temerity that she had lost sight of because of a misogynistic official.  The cheek and the audacity that he saw in her when he fell in love are what he wants her to be identified by, not fear and cowardice. 

I realize that I have written very little about how well-crafted the film is.  Yes, the film features wonderful acting, thoughtful staging and unobtrusively gorgeous cinematography.  A case in point is the poetry recital scene in the first half.  When Bobby starts reciting an earnest but painfully trite poem, the split-second reactions of Lilly and her sister (a casual, understated Shruti Ramachandran) are captured by the photography and precise editing.  There is as much beauty in these little scenes as that sheer portrait of a frame where we see Bobby and Lilly kiss while leaning out of a window.  But to me, the craft of this film, as good as it is, is second only to the delicacy of the writing.

I hope that as a fictional creation, Dear Comrade is regarded as an important societal advance.  After all, thought provoking films not only offer a reflection of where society is but also an opinion of where it should head.  This is a film that offers hope to victims of MeToo and a charge to the family and friends of the survivors.  That they have a responsibility to offer meaningful, abiding support sans judgement.  That the film accomplishes this by telling a poignant story instead of preaching to us, is yet another reason why we should continue to treasure it. 

Dear Comrade, I am sorry we let you down when you released in the theaters.  But rest assured that we won’t forget you until we see the change that you have dared us to dream of.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Have you heard of SR Sivakami?

Let me guess.  You probably have not.  If you have, you are (a) an even crazier movie buff than I am or (b) you knew her personally or worked with her. 

Let’s try a slightly easier question – have you seen K Balachander’s Agni Saatchi (1982) or his tele serial Kai ALavu Manasu (circa 1995)?  SR Sivakami played Saritha’s mother-in-law in the former and Lyricist Vaali’s wife in the latter.

I recently revisited select episodes of Kai ALavu Manasu on youtube.  And without my realizing it, I was actually skipping the Prakash Raj-Geetha portions – that is the main story, after all! – to go to the scenes featuring Vaali and Sivakami.  Their subplot is classic K Balachander.  They are a lovable elderly couple who care deeply about each other, traditional in demeanor but modern in thought.  Their only son Kandhan whom we never see even a photograph of – yes, classic KB – is in the peacekeeping force in Somalia.  This is the pre-internet, pre-smart phone era.  So, the occasional letter or the rare phone call is the extent of their interaction with their only child.  One day, Vaali gets the news that the son has died.  Vaali’s world comes crashing down.  But here’s the twist – he decides to hide the news from his wife for as long as possible.  In the meanwhile, the couple offer strong support to the romance of a Kannada boy (Ramji) with a Tamilian girl, a union that is opposed by the girl’s martinet father. 

The phone rings, the heart beats (Click on play to go to the scene):

It is the scenes where Sivakami does not know what Vaali and us in the audience know, where the actors glow.  Vaali was a fine, spontaneous actor, one whose potential was largely untapped.  And Sivakami is stupendous in these scenes.  Her growing anxiety, the nagging sense that something is amiss and the short-lived joy at seeing the newspaper clipping (that the troops in Somalia are homebound), are all handled by her with tremendous finesse and conviction.  She is completely natural, doesn’t strike a single false note and makes us tear up in the scene where she sweetly tells Vaali that she will make him chapathi and korma as promised, after returning from the temple.

The chapathi scene (at 7:05) and the heartbreak sequence (at 20:50):

She goes into a near comatose state upon hearing the news of her son’s death.  But upon seeing Ramji and his newly-wed wife, she thinks that he is her son.  (Years later, Radha Mohan would traverse this kind of an arc with the MS Bhaskar character in Mozhi, with equal poignancy and controlled, impactful theatrics.)  Sivakami is a joy to watch in these scenes too.  She brings an innocent, childlike quality.  The way she talks about the past travails of her son in Somalia is enormously touching, especially since we know the truth.  KB does the right thing by leaving this thread in that state of new normal.  After all, the dots connect in real life in unexpected ways. 

A new lease of life (Click on play):

The Vaali – Sivakami portions of Kai ALavu Manasu serve to reinforce what Hollywood discovered eons ago.  That character actors who receive prominence and backing of screenplay authors will bring out shades of emotion that you will never see in conventional lead roles.  (In the Bedroom, for instance, was entirely focused on an elderly couple looking to avenge the death of their only child.)  The Tamil film industry continues to be heavily hero-oriented, with every meaningful role for even a lead actress – forget about character actors – being cause for celebration.  That should be an everyday occurrence, not an exception.  But we must be thankful for the fact that Tamil cinema has been blessed with filmmakers that wanted to go beyond conventional heroism and fake machoism to showcase emotions that are real and rooted.  They knew that they had actors like SR Sivakami.  She may not be with us – she passed on in 2010.  But with films featuring strong female characters like Aruvi and ensemble dramas with strong character actors like Managaram achieving critical and commercial acclaim, there is hope.  But we need more.  That way, more SR Sivakamis will be known to a wider audience, not just crazy movie buffs who think out loud on their blogs!

A tribute to her in The Hindu, from 2010: