Jasmeet K Reen has only one approach to filmmaking: Follow your gut. Her debut film, Darlings, on Netflix, is a dark comedy about an abusive marriage — a potential minefield of topics and tones to navigate. Reen, however, says she lived with her characters for so long, she knew them in her bones. There's Badru (Alia Bhatt), who can't take off her rose-tinted glasses long enough to spot the red flags in her husband Hamza (Vijay Varma), an abusive alcoholic. There's also Badru's mother Shamshu (Shefali Shah), edging into the frame to push her to get rid of him. Eventually, the two come up with a plan. Reen, who has previously written Pati Patni Aur Woh (2019), another film about less-than-ideal husbands, spent months researching domestic abuse and scouting for locations she could set the film. Having grown up in the city, she settled on a Byculla chawl for its bustling atmosphere and flavourful use of language. She talks about the twists in the tale, deciding to weave the story around Muslim characters and crafting an older woman-younger man romance.
How did this idea come to you?
I had the idea of a mother and daughter finding their place in a male-dominated world and trying to fix the daughter's marriage. But there's something off with them and something terribly wrong with the marriage although the daughter and her husband are madly in love with each other. I knew that the mother and daughter were going to come up with wacked-out ideas to fix the marriage so it was always going to be a dark comedy. I spoke to a lot of women across different strata just to understand why they stay in such marriages. I realised that none of them were able to leave. They were all unable to let go and I wanted to understand why. Once I had all my research in place, I approached my co-writer (Parveez Sheikh) and we wrote this mad film.
What kind of insights did your research give you?
The film is fictional, but I dare say it's a true story because a lot of women want a man to change for them and a lot of them blame addiction. They think that the problem is that their husbands are addicted to alcohol and that is what makes them do bad things. A lot of women were used to being angry. At one point, they would say that they've had enough but they'd get back together with the man the next day. A lot of independent, educated women knew they were being manipulated and still kept going back. They were so dependent on the person and on the relationship that they were unable to let go. In any relationship, you always try to fix your problems, right? But if one person doesn't want to be fixed, how do you help them? That's what they didn't realise. The men would keep saying that they want to change, which is why the women would stay. The women didn't realise the men had no interest in changing. Sometimes, I saw that the men really did love them. Things would go back to normal for three or four months and the women would think things would be lovely forever. Six to eight months went into this research process.
Hamza's character has a very consistent and effective form of gaslighting that he employs and also plays very specific abusive games with Badru. Did these come from your research?
None at all, they were fiction. Hamza feels entitled to his wife. He wants to control her. In the pebbles scene, she makes a mistake and he hits her for ruining his dinner. Next time, she mixes something in his food and lies to him. That's when he realises that hitting her isn't working and he needs to do something more. That's why he tries to burn her face, to scare her a little. In the third instance, she lies to him again and goes to talk to the builder after he tells her not to. He realises that his wife is getting out of hand and decides he needs to escalate the abuse and so he mentally tortures her. That's why he plays the shoe game with her. After that, even Badru says that the torture was physical at first, but now it's mental.
What made you decide to center this story around Muslim characters? One of the criticisms of the film is that you're depicting a Muslim as abusive at a time when the community is already a target of violence.
Each of the four main characters represent Bombay in a sense. Hamza is the only educated person among his friend group. He is actually the best specimen from among the chawl residents — someone who has a government job. Hamza thought he would get this job and bully everyone and his life would be on track, but his boss makes him clean toilets. He has an unfulfilled dream. Badru dreamt of a love marriage because she knew her mother had an arranged marriage and it didn't work out. So she gets married to Hamza but it's a failure and her dream remains unfulfilled. Shamshu dreamt of Badru having a better marriage than she did, but even then the same fate befalls her. Zulfi (Roshan Mathew) dreams of being a writer but sells knickknacks. They all represent Bombay.
I'm from Bombay so I knew the Byculla area, but when I went there to research, I found the flavour and the humour of the lingo so fantastic. It's a mix of Hindi, Marathi and English, all with bad grammar. They say things like, "Tum mad ho kya?" The way they speak is so interesting and we thought it would be great to have it in the film. It's a very cosmopolitan chawl. There are Muslims who are Maharashtrian and a lot of Christians who also speak a bit of Marathi. That's where it came from, there was no other reason. Violence has no particular perception of person, religion or gender.
There are points in the film at which you almost feel sorry for Hamza, like when he cleans his boss' toilet. Were you at any point worried about making an abuser sympathetic?
I wanted people to know where he comes from, not to say that his actions are justified but to point out that there are people like him who are frustrated and who take out their frustrations on other people. I wanted to humanise him. Maybe Hamza saw violence when he was growing up — to me, that was the backstory, that in his family it was okay. So that he grew up thinking it was okay to be controlling, loving and abusive.
Tell me a little about Shamshu's backstory. It's a great twist, but in hindsight, you wonder why a woman who went to such extremes to end her own abusive marriage doesn't fight harder to save her daughter from one. There are points at which she's cracking jokes about Badru's situation and you almost wish that she had pushed harder to get her out.
So the story is about two women who deal with violence in different ways. Shamshu did what she had to do to protect her daughter. That daughter grew up without a father and so by the time she met Hamza, she had experienced only limited male interaction. When that happens, you tend to hold on to the first man you find, it's natural. Badru wanted a love marriage because she knew her mother had an arranged marriage and it didn't work out. She just didn't know why. She thought that if she had a love marriage, it would be successful. She found love in Hamza, but sadly he turned out to be an abusive partner. Shamshu even tells her, 'Pehla thappd mara tha tab mai boli thi usko chod de.' But Badru doesn't listen.
Hamza also blames Shamshu for a lot of things because he's afraid that she will take Badru away from him. There are so many times he and Badru are talking about Shamshu, which is an intentional choice — she's tried very hard to get Badru out of that marriage. In the backstory, which isn't in the film, Badru didn't immediately tell her mother the first time Hamza hit her. She took two-three days to process it first. She came to Shamshu's house and told her what happened, but after Shamshu told her to stay, Badru forcefully walked out because she wanted to keep her family together. She had so much faith that Hamza would change for her.
Shamshu has always said, 'Leave him, leave him, leave him.' But what can you do when your daughter is hell-bent on changing a man? Somewhere, Shamshu also blames herself for letting Badru marry this man. She feels guilty. At one point, she's so frustrated that she tells Badru to kill him. Her backstory makes her realise that Hamza will never change. She goes to extreme measures, she stops speaking to Badru for a month, she knows her daughter has to arrive at a realisation on her own. She pushes her to file a police complaint but sometimes, that's the hardest thing to do when you're someone who's been abused.
How did you calibrate Badru's breaking point? She turns against Hamza only after she loses her child. Why is him punching her mother in the face not a bigger deal to her?
The breaking point comes when she loses her child because several things happen at that point — Badru realises that Hamza was not drinking when he attacked her so it wasn't the alcohol that was to blame, she realises that he is never going to change and that she needs to stop being a victim. When he hits her mother, the context there is that she's been married for three years and needs to believe that her husband will change so that the past three years of her life haven't been a waste. He has just promised her a baby and she holds on to that strand of hope that life will be back to normal. Where Shamshu sees people as black-and-white, Badru sees them as gray. She knows that people are flawed. When Hamza says he will quit drinking, she wants to believe him. When she loses her child, she thinks about jumping from the window but then realises that she can't keep being the victim — if he isn't going to change, then she needs to stand up for herself and teach him a lesson.
The Zulfi-Shamshu interactions are some of the best moments in the film. Talk to me about crafting a romance between an older woman and a younger man.
My brief to Roshan was that the audience should know that you have a soft spot for these two women but they shouldn't know that you're in love with Shamshu. Zulfi would never cross that line because he doesn't want to push Shamshu away. And Shamshu, for a long time, has not seen herself as a woman. She's so preoccupied with being a mother and looking out for her daughter, that she has no time to think of herself. When Zulfi admits his feelings is when she starts feeling like a woman again. Until then, she was just a mom. The relationship between Zulfi and Shamsu is the purest of relationships — his feelings for her are pure, unconditional love and he expects nothing from her in return. Even Badru knows this. At the end, she tells Shamshu that Zulfi is nothing like her father or Hamza. I wanted to convey the idea that all single women have the right to move on, whether in friendship or love, or whatever kind of relationship they want. They might be so busy living alone or dealing with work that they may forget that this is also something they might enjoy.
Badru goes back and forth on punishing Hamza for a while. Was the ending always the one that you had in mind? Was there an alternate version?
Badru is so simple and so scared that it takes her a long time to make a decision. Earlier on in the film, she confesses to having bad thoughts, so she isn't even close to committing a bad action. When the cop calls her, she thinks she's going to be arrested for a bad thought. That's why for so long, her punishment is to make Hamza play the role she was playing at home — she makes him shell peas, do simple chores. Tying him to a chair is how she wrests control from him. Badru is a tolerant woman who resorts to revenge, but realizes that revenge is not the answer. She thinks she's acting out of a need for respect but then realises she doesn't need Hamza to give her that, self-respect comes from within. That's a cathartic experience for her. She also doesn't want the guilt of killing Hamza because that means he will never leave her. He'll continue to haunt her after he dies.