Somewhere, deep inside Darlings lies coiled what could have been our answer to a brilliant Ealing comedy. Jasmeet K. Reen's film, set in present-day Bombay and more specifically in that always unique milieu – a fledgling Muslim neighbourhood on the fringe of its sweeping skyscrapers – has all the ingredients to qualify. It has seemingly innocent people trying to escape their humdrum surroundings, it has a devilish caper set in motion that would even involve something dangerous, it has amusingly befuddled and even incompetent policemen trying to make some sense of things and above all, it wants to portray a whimsical yet astute picture of sordid truths lurking in the under-lit corners of this staunchly proletariat world. Those charmingly hilarious British comedies of the 1940s and 50s not only enlivened their disillusioned audiences with their silken English wit or the superbly timed pratfalls and performances of such gifted actors as Sir Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway but also critiqued social and economic upheavals in a washed-up Britain in the post-war years. If Kind Hearts And Coronets, my favourite of them all, exposed the seams in the country's aristocracy through its horribly hilarious story of serial murders, The Man In The White Suit cast a wry look at the industrial impoverishment that was still a few decades from being cured.
Darlings, while closer to the spirit of the scandalous hilarity of The Ladykillers or the rollicking wit and shenanigans of The Lavender Hill Mob, tries earnestly to achieve something deeper and more resonant than its surface of being a dark comedy. It is the story of a young marriage gone brutally, disastrously wrong; when the wispy yet easily flustered Badru is wooed by the thin and wiry Hamza, a ticket collector for the Railways, little does she know what demon, spurred on by drink, lurks beneath her lover's sweet antics. Three years later, the skeletons are all out of the cupboard – Badru is now a submissive wife, cowed and beaten by her husband and yearning for some escape in vain, much to the chagrin of her world-weary but knowing mother. Things reach a head, one unfortunate night, and Badru finally has had enough. She wreaks her vengeance on her unsuspecting husband and predictably, all hell breaks loose.
The Ealing caper films had the simplest, most unspectacular stories, made utterly compelling and even artistic by the skill of their directors, writers and actors and while Reen's film has enough talented people on both sides of the camera, it soon becomes, despite the initial promise, something worse than being predictable – blatantly obvious. So caught up is Darlings in trying to convince us of the authenticity of its setting and the significance of its thinly concealed message, that it struggles in straddling both entertainment and social commentary and does not succeed in either of them.
The story is too deliberately paced and even protracted to arrive to the main situation in the film which is ripe for both satire and social commentary. We are aware from the beginning that Hamza will get his comeuppance, sooner or later but while only a few scenes of his spurts of violent rage would have sufficed, Reen keeps on delaying the inevitable twist for almost more than an hour. The effort at keeping the pot boiling starts to show between the seams and in all this time, Darlings exhausts its smartest, wittiest tricks in firing storytelling blanks that don't lead anywhere. There is that potentially wicked scene with Vijay Maurya's amusingly confused policeman which the director and her writers waste away too early when they could have saved it for later. The rest of the twists and turns don't quite startle or shock as they should and one can predict the film's ending well ahead of its arrival.
That is a shame since Darlings, be it in the efforts of its cast or the skill of its crew – Anil Mehta's textured photography has the gritty, atmospheric quality of Douglas Slocombe – really yearns for significance. There are scenes when the characterisation works, there are notable moments when the humour, especially in Mr. Maurya's pungent dialogue, reeking firmly of Bombay's suburban patois and its repartee, earns chuckles and the actors rise to the occasion, making even weakly written scenes effective. But again, Reen's self-indulgence, a weakness to be found in most first-time directors, cripples the film with its waste and repetition. Nothing is made of a few interesting characters who are merely there for the sake of texture – such as Rajesh Sharma's keen-eyed butcher who, regretfully, says only a few lines and does even less and Roshan Matthew's doe-eyed scrap-dealer whose side profession of an aspiring writer feels like an act of tokenism. A sight gag of a humdrum beauty parlour used early in the film, when Hamza is first seen wielding his fists, is shown again and again whenever things turn awry so that it loses its darkly comic potency. A pair of gleaming red stiletto heels are used deviously, nastily for torture but when used for revenge, they feel no longer sharp enough.
So caught up is Darlings in trying to convince us of the authenticity of its setting and the significance of its thinly concealed message, that it struggles in straddling both entertainment and social commentary and does not succeed in either of them.
It does not help that the actress wielding those same heels feels too hesitant and awkward to wreck the fury of a woman scorned. For some strange reason, the otherwise fastidious Alia Bhatt plays Badru with a confused pitch and tenor that ruins all her efforts to convey both vulnerability and belligerent pluck. We are unable to understand what makes her pine for escape when she is too unwilling to take matters in her hand and too frustratingly naïve to fathom her irascible husband, until it's too late. We can attribute some of the blame for this to the writers too but it also does not help that Bhatt flits inconsistently from mood to mood and thus fails to make us believe in her as a femme fatale even when dressed in a slinky red dress.
Instead, the real menace lurking in this film comes solely from the homme fatale himself. Vijay Varma plays Hamza with far more skill, ease and empathy than the rest of the actors around him. His meagre frame and inscrutable face that twitches with wry flirtation and vitriolic impotence create a portrait of failed, defeated masculinity that almost makes us believe in his lies. The age-old parable of the frog and the scorpion is quoted here to drive home its point but it is clear, by the end, that Varma's scorpion himself is more effective than Bhatt's frog so desperate to pretend to be the other. That is hardly surprising for, like her, this film has not enough sting in its tale.