Friendship is at the heart of love. Dear Comrade understands this secret. This is why Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda) doesn’t use words like ‘darling’ and ‘baby’ when referring to Lilly (Rashmika Mandanna). He prefers the word ‘comrade’ instead, making the promise that he will always be one for her.
This is far more moving than other conventional overused words of endearment. The origin of this word itself is rooted in gender neutrality, equality, and unity in pursuit of a shared goal. In Dear Comrade, this goal is self-improvement. This is the film about how Lilly finds a comrade, about how liberating it is for people to have one such person, romantic relationship or otherwise.
There’s almost no plot here and whatever there is, isn’t particularly surprising, but it doesn’t matter, for, this is a film championed by characterization. It’s a journey—a word used many times in the film—that Bobby and Lilly go through, personally and together.
The equality professed by this film is evident in the challenges both characters have to surmount. Both bear the impact of a family member. Bobby takes after his grandfather, a communist—in an early scene, his father expresses concern about this, referring to Bobby’s irrepressible need to stand up for what’s right. He won’t back down, he won’t take no, and he’s violent to boot.
In a sense, you could say he is fire in human form. Lilly, on the other hand, is like water. She’s fluid, fleeting, and will slide away from her fights, internal and external. When Bobby tells her of his love, you can see she’s already moving away. “I’ve had good memories so far with you, except this one,” she says. Can these two ever meet each other half-way? Can Bobby mellow? Can Lilly gather up her courage? More fascinatingly, can they help each other achieve both?
It’s a pretty long film at 2 hours and 50 minutes, but I didn’t mind this at all, given how all the characterisation imbues the events of this film with much emotional strength, also a consequence of Justin Prabakaran’s evocative score. When Lilly confronts an injured Bobby at the hospital, she asks, amid tears, "Who gave you the right to make us feel so much grief?"
It’s a pertinent question to a man who is constantly standing up for people’s rights. Pay more attention, and you will see that this is a question she wishes she could ask her dead brother. Or take the scene which has Lilly’s father almost cowering from conflict. It shows him as a protective, conservative type ("Siggu ledhu neeku?" asks Bobby), but pay more attention and you will see that this tendency to avoid conflict could well have been a consequence of his son’s death. Director Bharat Kamma shows great control over what he lets these characters do and speak.
Vijay Deverakonda had mentioned in an interview that the director gave him two books about communism to read before the shoot of this film, and you can see why. Leaving aside the obvious ‘comrade’ reference, there are other undertones. Right at the beginning, Bobby is shown to force Lilly to give him all her money; it’s literally daylight robbery.
He later says, "I took it because I needed it. I’ll give it back to you when I can."That’s communism in a line. This idea ties in nicely with what Bobby does in this film. For instance, when he needs Lilly to shoot a video, he will make her do it. He also makes himself available every time he realises Lilly is in need. When he realises she’s in depression, he’s there at the hospital. When he is convinced she needs his help, he is not above kidnapping her.
It’s beautiful that in this film about the power of togetherness, the emphasis is on the importance of confronting personal demons, on retaining or regaining self-respect. This is why Bobby won’t settle for a changed Lilly, who has lost her zest for life. He fondly recalls a time when he had to travel many hundreds of kilometres to meet her, when she was busy, trying to achieve her goals. Lilly too likes it when a changed Bobby shows much independence. “He may stay or leave, but ultimately it is about what he wants,” she says.
Upon reflection, a case could be made that though Bobby was available when Lilly most needed him, the reverse isn’t quite true. Bobby, after all, had to travel and face his demons by himself. Pay close attention though and you will see that Lilly was very much by his side… in spirit.
A large part of Bobby being able to make peace with his loneliness is through his imagined conversations with Lilly. He talks to her through a dysfunctional landline phone. He talks to her for three straight years, recording his feelings in a cassette. I delve so much in detail about these characters only because the characterisation of the leads—and their terrific performances—is so essential to the enjoyment of this film.
I am grateful that for once, a female sportsperson isn’t shown to be a tomboy. The cliché is usually to disassociate these women from femininity. You would typically see them wearing western attire, adopting the gait of a man, seemingly incapable of tears… Lilly is a cricketer but not one above sobbing her heart out if she so feels like. The two most heroic scenes in this film are those that feature its heroine.
The first is a mass-hero moment when she takes on dozens of men on a cricket ground. Typically, it’s the heroine who witnesses such a scene and falls in love; but here, the roles are reversed. In the second, she breaks out of self-imposed shackles. She screams in freedom, catharsis, and relief. Dear Comrade asks that we do something about our pain, to refuse to suffer silently and let it take control of us and change us. Scream if you have to; let it out. In another scene, when Bobby realises to his shock what has been weighing Lilly down, he assaults the culprit and does pretty much what Lilly does: Let out a primal scream.
I liked how real the people in this film are. Lilly nestles into Bobby’s shirt for an intimate hug, but this isn’t just a gimmick. Bobby, in loneliness, smells this shirt yearning for her scent. I liked that when Bobby visits her room for the first time, he picks up an old photo of hers and plants a kiss. I liked that among the photographs, a prominent one features Lilly and her late brother.
I liked how the togetherness between Bobby and Lilly (huge credit to Vijay Deverakonda and Rashmika again) is so vibrant with life force. I even liked smaller moments like when Bobby accidentally meets Lilly’s sister after a long break, and they interact in gestures. Or what about the moment when Lilly leans back through the window, reliving a beautiful kiss she once had. Typically, such expressions of nostalgia—especially concerning physical intimacy—are accorded only to men. Above all, I was delighted that despite the help from Bobby, Lilly is left to overcome her demons by herself.
This largely sensitive film takes a misstep in a matter concerning mental illness. Its idea that nature and some love could clean up the psychological mess is simplistic at best. This rings especially true given Bobby hardly cares to familiarise himself with what’s gone wrong with Lilly. There’s also a bit of support for alternative medicine, which I didn’t particularly care for either.
But this is a film that gets so many other things so right. For instance, I doubt I have seen a more realistic, sensitive love scene all year than the one that has Bobby and Lilly express their love for each other. He rides 200 kilometres on his scooterette for her, and after her initial surprise, she warms up to him and asks why he likes her so much.
He says he doesn’t know, but it doesn’t matter. She asked him the question only to buy herself some time to think about why she likes him. She thinks aloud, citing a couple of moments they shared, wondering if she was already in love then. And really, come to think about it… Who can claim to know exactly when they fell in love? In hindsight, I suppose I can — in talking about my feelings for this film. It was that scene that did me in.
Film: Dear Comrade
Cast: Vijay Deverekonda, Rashmika Mandanna
Direction: Bharat Kamma