The opening scenes of Dear Comrade hark back to Vijay Deverakonda’s previous film, Arjun Reddy, but as events unfold it turns out that this is a completely different kind of film. Dear Comrade is a romantic drama that starts off with a love story, but ends up tackling sexual harassment, aiming to shed some light on why women may decide against reporting the crime. While this may make the film sound like heavy going, it’s actually quite the opposite as writer/director Bharath Kamma adds plenty of light-hearted moments along with the sad, while Justin Prabhakaran provides an excellent soundtrack that even means we get to see Vijay Deverakonda dance. There is a lot going on in this film and it’s inevitable that it doesn’t all work, but there is still plenty here to both entertain and hopefully to spark some discussion, even if the message is sometimes obscured behind rather more standard Telugu action fare.
The film starts with a drunk and seemingly demented Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda) desperately trying to get in touch with his ex, Lilly (Rashmika Mandanna). It’s a role Vijay has played many times in the past, but before he becomes too much of a caricature, the film moves into flashback to explain Bobby’s history. Moving back to his student days, Bobby is seen as an impulsive and reactive student union leader who firmly believes that you have to fight to get what you want in life. He’s impetuous and hot-headed with a tendency to argue with his fists just as much as with rhetoric, a stance that makes him unpopular with his college principal and the police but a good friend to have on your side. These revolutionary tendencies are apparently due to his grandfather (Charuhasan) who teaches Bobby what it means to be a comrade. Sure, Bobby fights for what he believes is right, but also mainly because it seems to be something he enjoys doing.
Bobby meets Lilly when her family visit the house next door for her cousin Jaya’s (Shruti Ramachandran) wedding. A nice touch comes from Bobby previously having a crush on Jaya when the two were children, which gives a camaraderie between the two that continues through and has an impact in the second half. This time though it’s Lilly that Bobby starts to develop feelings for, and I love how the tables are turned and it’s Bobby who stares wistfully out of a window while Lilly is (almost) completely oblivious to his presence. The romance is slow to develop, but once it does, there is magic in every moment the two spend together, helped by Justin Prabhakaran’s evocative music. It’s not all smooth sailing though as Lilly has reasons for being wary of someone who gets into as many fights as Bobby, while Bobby can’t figure out if Lilly really likes him or just has her own agenda.
There are some very satisfying moments in this first half, such as the way Bobby finds out that Lilly is a State level cricket player and how his group of friends change their attitude from patronising to respectful once they discover she really can play. It’s nicely done to point out the prejudice without ever feeling spiteful or overly feminist. Lilly’s attitude to Bobby is refreshingly honest and the two have wonderful chemistry together that ensures their romance feels plausibly real. When the breakdown occurs between the two characters it develops organically as Lilly finds she cannot cope with someone so angry and violent, while Bobby can’t understand why she won’t stand up and believe in him as much as he believes in her. Vijay Deverakonda and Rashmika Mandanna were excellent in Geetha Govindam, and they work just as well together here, although in the second half the attention moves more to Rashmika as her character has to face some major challenges in her career.
Everything changes after the interval when Bobby heads off to find himself and hopefully lose his memories of Lilly while doing so. As in all Indian films, a journey of discovery means a motorbike and a trip to Ladakh, but that does mean awesome scenery so I’m not going to complain. But while Bobby has been off recording nature and trying to control his impulsive side, Lilly has had major problems in her life. Unfortunately, the film only shows these briefly once Bobby comes back into her life and Bobby’s actions as he literally kidnaps Lilly from the hospital where she has been recovering don’t seem plausible at all. But just when it seems that Bobby may be the cure Lilly needed to recover, the film takes another turn and we learn the reason behind Lilly’s departure from her promising cricket career.
What does work well here is the portrayal of Lilly’s reluctance to pursue any action against the cricket selector Ramesh Rao (Raj Arjun) who sexually, physically and mentally harassed her. The pressures of family, embarrassment and shame are all clearly portrayed as is the inevitable media reaction and appalling treatment received by Lilly and her family as they try to avoid the storm Bobby creates when he learns the truth. Bharath Kamma completely changes the direction of the film and suddenly the focus is on Lilly and her reluctance to bring any of the harassment out into the open. Bobby’s lack of understanding about why Lilly won’t fight and his frustration and anger is perfectly shown here and this is what makes Dear Comrade such an interesting film. There are few Telugu films that show the consequences of reporting harassment so clearly, and even if Lilly’s experience isn’t quite as bad as what can actually happen in real life, it does at least give some idea of the sort of courage that is needed to go ahead with any accusation of this nature.
For me this is Rashmika Mandanna’s film through and through and she is excellent in a role that requires her to be non-confrontational and frightened. Her reactions are mostly what would be expected of anyone from a similar background put into the same situation, and although I really wanted her to fight back, I could totally understand why she wouldn’t even try. She really gets into the heart and soul of the character and I love how she doesn’t see bobby as her salvation, but instead as the person who just makes her miserable with his demands. In a film industry where the hero isn’t allowed to ever be anything other than the perfect partner, it’s so refreshing to see Vijay Deverakonda take backstage and be exactly what Lilly doesn’t need instead.
On one hand this is a film that deals with relationships and the consequences when one partner thrives on violent confrontations while the other tries as hard as possible to avoid conflicts of any kind. On the other hand, Dear Comrade deals with sexual harassment and the routine abuse that women have to deal with day in and day out. It is a rather male slanted view, but perhaps that’s what is needed to reach the people who need to understand the fear and powerlessness that comes with this type of abuse. At least with the presence of Vijay Deverakonda, well-staged fight scenes and a sizzling romance, there is a good chance that more people will be watching. This was so much better than I expected and despite a few mis-steps and missed opportunities, this is one of my favourite Telugu films this year. Highly recommended.