Bharat Kamma’s Dear Comrade is representative of all that is wrong with Telugu cinema, which is to say it is representative of Telugu cinema, because there is almost nothing right with Telugu cinema. A disquisition on Kamma’s ideas of Marxism and feminism, it does not understand either and makes a mockery of both with the man as the usual, testosterone-soaked saviour of those he loves and of the world beneath the veneer of a sense of justice and, worse, love.
'Comrade' is a word thrown around in the film and refers primarily to the protagonist’s grandfather who it would appear was a Communist party member but not really: he was just a man who fought for those he loves and “what he loves” (the film’s tag line). His grandson follows in his footsteps. If this involves beating people up, ripping saline drips of women who just tried to commit suicide and pushing and pulling women into and out of his arms, so be it. The Telugu hero must not lose his testosterone perfume, comrade or not.
But the really egregious and revolting centrepiece of the film is this man’s idea of feminism. It involves browbeating a heroine into complaining about sexual harassment even when she does not want to, screaming at a working class Muslim woman who was harassed and beaten mercilessly by the same man who harassed the heroine and becoming the saviour of the film by taking credit for the heroine’s final breakdown and complaint. She says to the press she could do it because everyone needs someone special in their lives to be able to complain, a comrade, not because she had finally lost her cool and her anger overrode her conservatism. If there is any more revolting mockery of the struggle against sexual harassment, it is this film.
The heroine’s conservatism is any case a bit of a contradiction from the portrayal of her more generally as a plucky, spirited state-level cricketer. When the hero first proposes to her in an aggressive and offensive manner, she tells him off, saying his behaviour is ruining her good opinion of him. But he rides to Hyderabad and grabs her again and she forgets all offence and all is well with the world. Welcome to Telugu film romance! And this is a film about sexual harassment!
When the heroine asks him not to be violent after he gets beaten to near-death in one of his rowdy escapades, he literally and figuratively throws her out of his life and goes riding into the mountains to discover himself (Welcome to Telugu male privilege!) while she is harassed, suffers a mental breakdown and is in hospital.
Then, of course, he comes back and rescues her but not before beating the harasser black and blue. CPM goondaism always had a close relationship with feudalism and uppercaste arrogance. It fits. With comrades like this, who needs Marxism?
The film is formally unimaginative and unexciting in its pathetic rehashing of styles (literally scenes) from Arjun Reddy and Geetha Govindam, the only hits Devarakonda has had among the string of flops that garlands him. Arjun Reddy (of Arjun Reddy) turns Marxist-feminist here while also being the goofy and lovable Vijay (of Geetha Govindam). He does one better, he even writes ornately bad poetry. At least the heroine has the good sense to laugh at it.
What on earth is Vijay Devarakonda doing making such films? But then what do you expect from a man who says the book that changed his life is Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and recommends it to the whole planet? I guess he needs to go back to the drawing board and read some more Stanislavsky, whom he mentions in the same breath as Ayn Rand! If he thinks widening his eyes and flaring his nostrils is acting, he needs help.
Is there any hope for Telugu cinema, then? Every year, it produces one decent film that gives one hope. Last year’s was Maha Venkatesh’s c/o Kancharapalem; this year’s was Raj Rachakonda’s Mallesham. Perhaps one should not rest one’s hopes on this cinema till the caste composition of the industry changes.
When that will happen in the Telugu film industry no one can say but Dear Comrade’s versions of Marxism and feminism is not it. That much is for sure.
More columns by Ashley Tellis:
Arjun Reddy, Sri Reddy & Telugu cinema's hatred for women
The politics of naming, showing and shaming
Why gender-neutral laws on sexual violence is a terrible idea
The fabric of resistance: Dalit women's deaths and lives
The failed dream of Aruvi
Gauri Lankesh's life a battle against men trying to silence her
Pissing in the wind against the Notinmyname campaign
What Justice Karnan case reveals about the Judiciary
Ashley Tellis is a freelance writer, editor and gay activist