Readers Write In #92: ‘Dear Comrade’ gets right things that ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’ didn’t

Posted on August 11, 2019

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(by N Madhusudhan)

These are exciting times in Southern Cinema. Never before has the envelope been pushed so far in a mainstream romance as these two films have in recent times, to varying degrees of success. While these two films could not be more different from each other in style, there are some striking similarities in substance.

Both films trace the transformative journey of their leads at a leisurely pace without giving in to the conventional traps of mainstream southern cinema (well, mostly). Like most great romances, both films narrate love stories that unfold across a significant period of time with characters having substantial arcs. Both films revolve mainly around their lead characters and there is little focus on other characters. Even the supporting characters are written in the context of being a part of the main characters journey. In both films, the female lead suffers because of the uncontrolled impulsiveness of the male lead and both films are about how eventually love transforms them.

But the story really hits home in only one of these films, and that is Dear Comrade which is much better packaged. The film has a fascinating political undercurrent without too many narrative bumps which makes it such a pleasurable watch. It definitely is good cinema. But it doesn’t forget to be a good movie first. It builds a world that feels warm and the early romantic portions hit the chords beautifully. And like Kaatru Veliyidai, the love story here has begun even before the film starts capturing it.

Bobby in Dear Comrade is an impulsive hothead. He picks fights out of thin air. He thinks he fights for a cause. He’s a pseudo communist who keeps loosely throwing the word ‘Comrade’ as a cover for his anger management issues. He doesn’t hear the cries of his loved ones when he’s beating people up or getting beaten up. He just doesn’t stop.

A part of the film is about how Bobby becomes the ‘Comrade’ that he so badly wants to be. His anger finds a direction and this direction, he finds through Lilly. It happens across a long lone road trip that Bobby takes after he loses Lilly due to an act of rage. The Geography looks like the region of Leh-Ladakh as we have seen in movies of the past (including Kaatru Veliyidai). Generic as it sounds, it makes sense. After all, in the Spanish film ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, a biopic on popular Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, the transformation from a young man to a revolutionary is shown to happen through the course of a similar road trip that the character undertakes. It is no coincidence that at multiple points in Dear Comrade, you see posters of Che Guevara.

While Bobby and Lilly may have separated, it’s her memories that Bobby carries across this punishing landscape that changes him. In Kaatru Veliyidai, the yearning happens in a prison cell. Lilly is completely with him in this period of suffering, in his memories, helping him fight the loneliness and in regions uninhabited by humans. She’s his ‘Comrade’ in every sense of the word.

About 80 minutes into this 170 minute film, the director has already convinced us of Bobby’s dramatic transformation and the spends the remaining 90 minutes on Lilly’s character and how Bobby becomes her ‘Comrade’ helping her fight through the trauma of sexual abuse, depression, lost hope and eventually helps her come out as the Lilly he fell in love with. This, to me, is a tremendous achievement given the constraints of a southern mainstream film and the attention spans of our audience. But at the end, the story hits home in all its glory. It’s the most satisfying film I’ve seen this year. I came out wanting to be a ‘Comrade’ myself. Of course, when I woke up the next day it was all gone, but let’s be positive here.

But then, why didn’t Kaatru Veliyidai, helmed by the man who portrays relationships like nobody else on the screen, achieve this? Despite its artistic brilliance, it fails to convince us of VC’s transformation. We were left scratching our heads after the climax relying solely on visual cues to decide whether VC is really a changed man, after all.

This is largely because Bharat Kamma isn’t as afraid of spending time with his characters as Mani Ratnam seems to be. He doesn’t seem to be worried about the film’s length which ultimately works for the film. I didn’t take my mobile out even once. Each action of its leads is both emotionally and logically well explained. We connect to them and are desperately rooting for them to come out of their trauma. The narrative is fairly clean and linear and doesn’t indulge in any kind of experimentation.

Kaatru Veliyidai, on the other hand, spends most of its time unraveling the troubled shades of VC making it really difficult for the audience to find a single redeeming quality in him. For about 110 minutes of this 130-minute long film, we see why Leela is better off without VC. Then comes the problematic climax stretch where the entire redemption angle is criminally rushed through. It works wonderfully as a standalone scene. The staging can be taken up in film schools. The performances hardly hit false notes. Yet, it’s the narrative that fails the film. I would have happily spent another 30 minutes with VC and Leela. I wanted the redemption angle to be much more detailed. It feels like an afterthought. Yet, the overall artistic brilliance made me happily accept these gaps. But I couldn’t help but wonder what an achievement it would have been had that extra time been spent on the characters. I’m still left wondering.

The same problem plagues the director’s more successful recent outing, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam where we come out wishing we had spent more time with the brothers to really understand what prompts them to go for each other’s blood. Was this hatred built up from their childhoods? Without this emotional logic, we’re just not invested enough in the otherwise brilliantly staged action blocks.

Mani Ratnam has been pretty vocal about wanting to keep his films short and crisp. But this cannot come at the cost of audience having a satisfying experience. Mani Ratnam might have the film in his head. But we don’t. When you tell us stories that are so unconventional, you need to feed us enough to accept these stories as well.

In many ways, Dear Comrade is a Kaatru Veliyidai done right. But again, both films have failed commercially. In the end, I’m still left scratching my head.