When I walked into the theatre for Dear Comrade, I was half-sceptical, half-resigned to the fact that it will be consumed by Vijay Deverakonda, living up to his fans' expectations. I was pleasantly surprised, the film wasn't even about him. Vijay is the second protagonist, Bobby, (fans may not agree, but thank god, I'm just a lowly film critic) in a movie where Rashmika Mandanna (Lilly) is the one who steals the show, start to finish.
Lilly meets Bobby, literally the boy next door, during her sister's wedding - imagine cute frames, bouquets, mood lighting, the female protagonist beautifully decked up and walking in slow motion as the camera pans from the floor to the curls of her hair, the boy stealing glances at her. Lilly surprises Bobby and her male friends, brushing aside their obvious sexism with wit, charm and mischief, by winning them a cricket match. After all she plays for the state and is on the verge of making it to the national team. That sets the tone for the movie even though most of the story seems like Bobby's redemption drama. Make no mistake, it is not. Bobby walks around, with mostly an Arjun Reddy-hangover; he is shown as an impulsive student leader, but for most part it is just him and his anger, and bashing up people because he won't step back. His anger rarely comes across as ideological, and while it feels like some of his fights are about protecting others around him, he ends up putting them in danger more often than not.
Lilly, the protagonist of the movie and someone who hates confrontations, tries to unsuccessfully mould Bobby and they part. That takes Bobby through a journey of self-reflection - you guessed it right, to Leh-Ladakh for self-reflection - and he comes back a quieter, nicer person. Meanwhile, something makes Lilly stop playing cricket following a mental health issue. Just when she heals thanks to Bobby's changed persona, his old persona is back, and it brings back her demons too and the reason she shut cricket out. This time though, he is right, and yet, she is too scared to fight. The title Dear Comrade he wants to make her fight for her right. Bobby's grandfather explains to Lilly that a comrade is someone who is with you during your journey and fight is a nice touch.
Rashmika Mandanna as Lilly has tremendous screen presence, but more importantly, acts without worrying about how she would look on camera - she laughs, blushes, smiles and cries freely. And in this film, she gets to enact the whole gamut of emotions as a little-understood woman in a system, designed to oppress a woman in various ways - in the name of love, in the name of authority, in the name of affection, in the name of power, in the name of responsibility and family honour (if a well-protected girl from a liberal upper-middle class upbringing goes through so much, what about the general plight of women, you find yourself asking?).
Rashmika is ably supported by Vijay Deverakonda, who is largely eye-candy but at times, gets some really good scenes. Rashmika also has the best lines in the film - one where she reminds her boyfriend that your fight should be inside you, and not with the outside world (She eventually does show how much fight she has in her when it comes to that, reminding us that it takes strength and not cowardice to not fight for the one thing you dearly love, in her case, cricket). Rashmika's work in this film is as good as a female protagonist is allowed in an intense romantic drama, that has not been penned specifically for the woman's character.
Two things about the film are laudable. The soundtrack by relative newcomer, Justin Prabhakaran, is hauntingly beautiful. Sid Sriram is not the only vocalist who makes the emotions inside you lilt and flow out. The soundtrack is also wide in range borrowing from ballads, folk, and rock, turning the album into a wonderful melange for all seasons. Secondly, Bharat Kamma, the newbie director, should be lauded, for turning a romantic drama into one about sexual harassment and how it is still not spoken about, and how it costs women so much. The script sensitively brings this out - without overdramatising it or cannibalising the issue with loudness - the pain and conflict of a woman who is still not sure she is supposed to fight (because of several reasons like family honour, media - yes the media with its shameful/disgusting remarks and direct harassment of the victim's families, dilemmas, etc.)
The cinematography and editing by Sujith Sarang and Sreejith Sarang, show that the director does know how to pick a good team, the movie never losing its poetic touch, in anxiety and anger, in romance and self-discovery.
The movie has its moments but also avoids inane comedy for the sake of it, despite portraying all-weather friends in a wonderful light. All in all, it is a movie that deceives to surprise you, with an outer layer masquerading as a male protagonist's story - anger management, bike journeys, change, recidivism into the old self at the first sight of another challenge. But really, deep down it is all about that woman, and like she says at one point - no one cares or asks what she wants.
And Rashmika and Bharat Kamma have brought that amalgamation of joys, struggles, and fears out beautifully.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.