The film gets a lot right about Lilly's response to what happens to her, but does it do enough to address her concerns?

What Dear Comrade gets right and wrong about dealing with sexual harassment
Flix Film Commentary Monday, July 29, 2019 - 16:11

*This article is not a review and contains spoilers. If you haven't watched the film and don't like spoilers, do not read ahead.

It is fascinating to me that we label cinema a communal experience, even when no two individuals in a theatre, at any point of time, are watching the same film. I have never felt this distinction as acutely as I have with Dear Comrade.

If you open Twitter, you will find that it is filled with reviewers and audience, alike, writing odes to the film’s beauty, and deservedly so. And I have to admit at the outset that even though it didn’t move me as much, I did like it enough to feel conflicted.

But I am not in love with it and this piece is me trying to figure out why.

Is it another Arjun Reddy?

The film begins the same way as any angry-young-man tale does: we are introduced to the man’s temper before we are introduced to who he is. And as Vijay Deverakonda said in an interview, it is not fair that the film reminds us of Arjun Reddy — he has done five other films between these two — but it still does.

That’s fine because even if Bobby (Vijay’s character in the film) is more or less like Arjun, the film he is in isn’t like Arjun Reddy and neither is the woman he is with like Preethi. The film has two important characters who constantly question Bobby and his anger.

The first character is his thathaya who says he isn’t fit to be a comrade and sends him away so he will learn to get a hold of his bearings. The second character is Lilly —Rashmika does a solid job portraying a complex character.

Lilly recognises Bobby’s anger before we do and sees it for what it is. Bobby’s anger reminds her of her dead brother’s rage and she says as much. She tries to stay away from him even if her heart says otherwise, and when she finally gives in, she predicts that his anger can be an issue in the future. Bobby, being Bobby, writes her concern off — he does that a lot, writing other people’s point of view off.

When a fight eventually breaks, Bobby is severely hurt and hospitalised. The first thing Lilly says to him after he wakes up is, "Who is happy because of you?" This is how the film reins its angry man in. It asks him questions that no other Telugu film bothered to, even if it doesn’t wait for him to answer them. Yes, the film glamourises Bobby’s rage, it is inevitable, considering most of Vijay’s fans want just that, but it also stops before taking a wrong turn. This restraint made me admire the film and the filmmaker more than anything else in it.

Informed take on sexual harassment

The film also addresses sexual harassment in women cricket, and this too is dealt with in a sensitive and insightful manner. I, especially, liked its portrayal of the harasser, the South Zone chairman named Ramesh, and his behaviour. This man is so used to abusing his power and not getting caught that he just enters a women’s washroom drunk, knowing very well what it could do to his career.

He corners Lilly and tries to scare her by predicting her failed future, and hits her friend Rubina, who comes to Lilly’s rescue, in the gut many times — she, for some reason, is used as a narrative tool and never gets the justice she deserves. Thankfully, we aren’t shown Rubina being hit — another sensible choice — but his rage is disturbingly visible. Similarly in the end, when he is very close to getting away, it’s his ego that undoes him. He isn’t content with the woman refusing to testifying against him, no. He wants her to apologise for putting him through this ordeal. After everything that has happened, he is still stuck with the thought of her rejecting his advances.

And, fittingly, this is what breaks Lilly. Not her boyfriend’s probable imprisonment. This. The man who ruined her dream calling her untalented and asking her to say sorry. I cannot say so with great authority, but I think the film depicts Lilly’s trauma just as well too. Three years have passed and we (and Bobby), see a different Lilly. She isn’t as full of life as she used to be and she isn’t the individual she once was. She dresses differently as well. When a man, who she had probably admired, calls her into his office after she's had a great match and asks for sexual favours, something changes in her psyche. She stops seeing herself as a talented individual and starts seeing herself as a mere body that needs covering.

The young woman who played cricket in a billowy frock isn’t there anymore. She now wears kurta pyjamas and holds on to a dupatta like her life is in it. Most of all, her relationship with cricket isn’t the same anymore and this is why she tries to put all her energy into the next best thing in her life: Bobby.

O Saviour, Where Art Thou?

Bobby, both the character and the man who plays him, comes with his own baggage. The stardom of the man who plays Bobby is so volatile and expanding that it can’t be confined to a single language. So, the film’s saviour complex is a given. The minute he is informed about the incident, we know that the film is going to make it about him and his pain/anger.

Sure enough, he runs to Lilly and apologises for not being there for her. Then, without skipping a beat, he drags her to the police station without telling her why. [Maybe he is too busy to google words like ‘triggering’, ‘trauma’, and ‘patience’ as well.] Another instance where the film is about to take a wrong turn, but Lilly stops it again. She comes out and asks him to leave her alone. “All of you tell me what you want, but never ask me what I want," says a crying Lilly. Here is a woman who loves you, and she is equating you to her harasser. This would stop any man in his tracks and force him to retrospect. But not our Bobby.

The beginning of the end

This is the point where the film starts to take that wrong turn anyway, despite Lilly doing her part. If Bobby had decided to listen to her, instead of filing a complaint, and forcing her to stand in the same room as her abuser before she is ready, it would’ve been a better film. It would’ve also added credibility to the film’s claim that he is a transformed man.

How am I to believe this claim when he still behaves like the same man I saw at the film’s beginning? Yes, at one point in the film, he tries to dilute the tension by asking for the toilet, when Lilly’s father rightfully slaps him. But when he decides to kidnap Lilly from the hospital — she isn’t fully conscious — without intimating her family, I couldn’t help but see the same man who'd scolded a young woman recovering from an attempted suicide earlier in the film, for “misleading” him while being unconscious.

Isn’t he the same man, filled with the same loud rage that makes everything around him fall mute?

A trip, no matter how long, to the Northeast can’t replace therapy

I understand commercial cinema is never expected to be educative, but our cinema’s disinterest for learned takes on mental health is really off-putting, and at this point, reckless. Even though the psychiatrist is allowed to question Bobby’s method, nothing really comes of it.

Both are ‘cured’ at the film’s end and neither through medical channels. I am not going to pretend that I know or love Lilly more than Bobby does, but I am sure all she needed at that point is therapy and time — to process her trauma and get her gumption back. She needed someone she can trust. Someone who is willing to listen. Who better a candidate to do this than those who spent three years doing just that? Even though we aren’t ever told where Bobby’s anger stems from, it isn’t something that exists without a reason.

Dear Comrade

‘To ask for help when needed, and to help others when they need it back’ is the true spirit of comradeship or any friendship. But is it still help when you aren’t even willing to listen to what the other person really wants?

At one point, Bobby even calls a suffering Lilly a loser. Why would a film that is smart and sensitive up until the pre-climax suddenly stop, only to give way to a simplistic and underwhelming ending?

Sakeertana is an engineer who took a few years to realise that bringing together two lovely things, movies and writing, is as great as it sounds. Mainly writes about Telugu cinema because no one else would.

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