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.