Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma
Director: Jasmeet K. Reen
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Restraint and simplicity mark Darlings, which tells the story of a volatile marriage steeped in neo-noir devices. A tale of marital discord assumes the form of a revenge drama shot through with quirky humour and delivered with a dash of provocation.
An abusive husband, a wife who lives in hope and the latter’s far less forgiving mother are the three principal characters in Darlings, Jasmeet K. Reen’s directorial debut. The violence-prone man does not recognise his transgressions as something than cannot be pardoned. The victim of domestic violence, too, seems reconciled to her fate. It is only the older woman, aware of how such noxious relationships usually turn out, who is of the firm belief that the errant deserves to be put in his place. The drama that the divergence between mother and daughter yields is muted and when revenge is planned and put into practice it isn’t governed by the conventions of the genre.
That the Netflix film set in a lower middle-class Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in Mumbai wants to break the mould is made clear in the love song that it opens with – Pleaj (with lyrics by Gulzar), which captures the milieu and spirit of the story to absolute perfection.
Darlings places all its cards on the table with unequivocal clarity but shuffles them in a manner that makes wrapping one’s head around what they add up to somewhat challenging.
Because Darlings does not play out along the predictable lines of a revenge drama, it has no dramatic flourishes of the standard kind that aid full comprehension of the psyche of either the perpetrator of domestic abuse or the victim.
The screenplay by Parveez Sheikh and Jasmeet K. Reen has space for grey areas that need illumination as the story unfolds. That allows for an interplay of moral certitudes and natural human inconsistencies and adds a certain depth to the tale.
Darlings, co-produced by Alia Bhatt’s Eternal Sunshine Productions and Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, eschews broad strokes to underscore a volcano of emotions waiting to erupt. On the face of it, the film is about a young woman trapped in a marriage without a future.
But beyond the confines of one home and what happens there, the film opens out to reveal the horrors of toxic masculinity, the gender inequality inherent in the institution of marriage, and the fate that middle-class aspirations suffers when they come up against societal and economic realities.
The female protagonist of Darlings, Badrunnissa Shaikh, holds on to her fading dreams and gives her violent, alcoholic husband a long rope. Alia Bhatt plays the character with complete conviction, conveying all the contradictions that are inherent in her plight and her wavering response to it.
Badru is unlike any other character one has encountered in contemporary Hindi films. She suffers in silence because the plans that she has chalked out for herself – the sticky notes next to her dressing table and her desire to move into a ‘bada house’ tell us what they are – matter more than shielding herself from the beatings that her alcoholic husband Hamza (Vijay Varma) subjects her to.
Hamza is a railway employee who does his boss’ bidding by day, gets sloshed in the evening and returns home to vent his frustrations on his submissive wife. Badru believes that Hamza will mend his ways one day and their marriage will eventually work out.
Her mother Shamsunnisa (Shefali Shah), who lives next door, has been through a lot in life and knows better. Certain that Hamza is beyond redemption, she exhorts her bruised and battered daughter to take a stand.
Badru, despite what she has to endure, stands her ground. Ever optimistic, she buys de-addiction pills for her husband. She isn’t giving up on her plans with Hamza. At one point, she even says to her Ammi: “Woh badal gaye hain (he has changed).”
When things go completely out of hand and mother and daughter are pushed to a corner from where there is no way out, they devise a hurried plan to make Hamza pay for his sins. The move is fraught with risk and triggers situations that they have little control over.
Darlings has a fourth key character – Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), who is diametrically antithetical to Hamza. An aspiring screenplay writer, the self-effacing man hawks used household appliances for a living in addition to serving as the sole delivery boy for Shamshu’s dabba service.
Zulfi’s centrality to the story take a while to emerge and demonstrates that all men aren’t monsters. A police inspector (Vijay Maurya, one of the film’s dialogue writers), too, is a sensitive soul always eager to lend a helping had to victims of domestic violence. He rues the fact that women themselves often shy away from asserting their rights.
Darlings makes no bones about what exactly it is driving at. But it does not seek to make its point in overly simplistic and pat ways. It leaves ample room for the imponderables to kick in. Keenly aware of the ethical questions involved in pitting one brand of violence against another, it takes recourse to intrigue and slyly comic sleights.
Darlings is embellished with fine performances. Alia Bhatt reveals yet again the full range of her natural ability to get into the skin of a character. Shefali Shah, cast as a woman who has stopped worrying about the world and the impositions it makes on women, serves as the perfect foil.
Vijay Varma, playing a role that is definitely not single-note, fleshes out an extremely unlikeable man whose notions of love border on the sociopathic. He looks like a perfectly agreeable guy in most ways, but it takes the slightest of provocations for him to fly off the handle. The actor makes the behavioural transitions with minimum effort.
Roshan Mathew, too, thrives on bringing a quiet efficiency to his screen performances. He does just that in Darlings notwithstanding the fact that his role here feels a tad underwritten.
Darlings, which ploughs a dark furrow all its own while making judicious use of genre elements while shunning standard narrative tropes, is watchable all the way.