The husband is an alcoholic who holds no remorse for assaulting his wife every night, the wife is head over heels in love with the man and doesn’t mind cooking breakfast — the staple bun omelette — every morning for him with bruises all over — this may be a regular occurrence in many Indian households, but rarely gets talked about the way it should. Picking a subject like domestic violence for a dark comedy isn’t ideal, but Darlings, starring Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah and Vijay Varma, manages to hit the nail on the head. Directed by debutante Jasmeet K Reen, it is a quirky (as ironical as it may sound) take on how abuse against women and men is normalised. Nothing justifies the actions of either, but it’s interesting to see the story pan out in a way that it never really looks unsettling. (Also read: ‘Gauri Khan doesn’t like anything’, says Alia Bhatt, shares her review of Darlings)
Badrunissa Shaikh aka Badru (Bhatt) is smitten by roadside romeo Hamza Shaikh (Vijay Varma), and marries him as soon as he secures himself a government job. Cut to three years later and life after marriage, we see Bhatt getting beaten up every night for a new reason every time. Sometimes it’s a kankar in the food, sometimes just because she sat in a colony meeting without the husband’s consent. And once because he thinks she’s having an affair. The intensity of abuse gets disturbing and more intense with each day, until one day when Badru decides to stand up and take charge. From that point, Darlings shows how a middle-class mother-daughter duo (Shah and Bhatt), who is caught in their own circumstantial hang-ups, gradually discovers their inner strength to survive in a city like Mumbai, battling all odds.
With a runtime of two hours 14 minutes, the film is well-paced with interesting revelations being made one after the other. Reen’s story that she has co-written Parveez Sheikh is gripping and does trigger emotions of angst, helplessness and empathy. More than the story, the dialogues by Vijay Maurya (along with Sheikh and Reen) are impressive and genuinely make the film fit into the dark comedy genre. Some one-liners and comic punches are so subtle that if you don’t pay attention, you won’t understand why the person sitting next to you is laughing so hard. Wait for the climax that is funny and sad in its own way.
But in parts, the story does bother you when domestic violence is used as a ploy to trigger laughs — a woman sticking by her husband despite being abused, a man showing no sign of regret or for his actions, silent spectators shown as caricatures. At a time when more progressive and empowering stories are being liked by audiences, Darlings make you sit back and think, ‘Did we really need a film like this to make a point or give a message?’ At times, the film appears to be dealing with the situation at a surface level and does not seem to want to delve deeper into figuring out the psyche of such men, who think domestic violence is normal and just blame it on alcohol.
Moreover, Darlings is loaded with stereotypical characters, too. A lady who owns a salon on the ground floor, is privy to the scenario, but would rather discuss it with her clients than take any action. There’s a trusted uncle, butcher Kasim Bhai (Rajesh Sharma) who covers up for the family’s dirty actions. There’s also Hamza’s cunning boss (Kiran Karmarkar) who makes his life hell and loves to poke his nose in other people’s business.
That being said, performances in Darlings take the cake. Bhatt is in full form; her quirky lines, dialogue delivery, vulnerable expressions, emotional meltdowns help connect with her on a deeper level. In fact, in some portions, she reminded me of Gully Boy’s Safeena. Playing her onscreen mother is Shah, who delivers a phenomenal performance, and is way more restrained as compared to her recent outings in Humans and Jalsa. Shah is endearing, strong and lends the apt support to Bhatt’s story.
Varma is impressive as Hamza and does succeed in making you hate him. He’s cruel and unreasonable and his character, I felt, is written in the most realistic manner. Roshan Mathew as Zulfi is another character to watch out for. He might have in-your-face scenes, but whatever little he gets to perform, he doesn’t go unnoticed. I wish there were more scenes with him, and his bond with Shah and Bhatt was fleshed out in a better way.
The camaraderie between Bhatt and Shah is perhaps on the strongest USPs of Darlings. It is rather a clever move on the part of filmmakers to have this mother-daughter story at the heart of the film, and not just focus on the domestic violence angle between the couple. But when tables turn and Hamza is the supposed victim at the hands of his merciless wife and her mother, violence against men somehow appears to look like a joke. Of course, Badru’s actions are justified for she’s full of vengeance and hatred, but somewhere it does make you question the very premise of Darlings. I won’t be surprised if many diss Bhatt for agreeing to play a role that’s seemingly misandrist, but then, we have to take everything with a pinch of salt.
Watch Darlings for some hard-hitting realities of our society, ace performances, dark humour.
Director: Jasmeet K. Reen
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma, Roshan Mathew