Darlings is Dense and Daring

Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah shine in this dark comedy, but Vijay Varma is the scene stealer
Darlings is Dense and Daring

Director: Jasmeet K. Reen
Writers: Parveez Sheikh, Jasmeet K. Reen
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma, Roshan Mathew

Darlings is the sort of movie that might look a little strange while you're watching it. The premise is serious; the treatment is playful. The demons are real; the slaying is wishful. The method is messy; the madness is cinematic. But the more you think about Darlings, the more sense it makes. The film deals squarely with domestic violence in a lower-middle class Muslim household in Mumbai. The protagonist is a hopeful young woman named Badru (Alia Bhatt), who reaches the end of her tether with her physically abusive husband Hamza (Vijay Varma). Aided by her single mother Shamshu (Shefali Shah), Badru decides to turn the tables on the toxic man she loves. This vocabulary of table-turning is what defines Darlings. Shamshu cites a popular fable – about the scorpion who cannot resist stinging the kind frog that carries it across the river – as a cautionary tale about men. But Badru extends it into a conflict of moral identity: Is becoming a scorpion the only way to defeat one? Is revenge the only grammar of redemption? 

The answers are rooted in the genre of storytelling that Darlings chooses. Mainstream Hindi cinema has long played misogyny for either cheap laughs or bleak vigilante thrills. But the female-driven Darlings is a black comedy, a hybrid of the two extreme tones – it plays anti-misogyny for both laughs and bleakness at once. A black comedy is, after all, the thematic equivalent of a fearless frog disguised as a scorpion. The quirk is a tit-for-tat retort to the traditional exploitation of this space, but it's the darkness that imparts the agency to sculpt some truth out of it. In a way, this genre can be read as a daring reclamation of voice by the oppressed. The film's challenge – like its protagonist's – is to not succumb to the poisonous tropes it sets out to subvert; it's to retain the integrity of the frog. Darlings is mostly successful in that sense. Even the tonal shifts in a draggy second hour – where the two women sway between loud situational humour and snapping the generational cycle of abuse – feel more defiant than jarring. They belong to a film where jittery justice wears the cloak of rabid revenge. 

I like Darlings for what it aims to achieve. The entertainment is almost incidental to the plot, because it is a reactive piece of film-making. It reacts to the fraught relationship between romance and abuse as well as our perception of art that glorifies this relationship. It also acknowledges that life is far more complicated than the narrative tropes that trivialize it. For instance, Shamshu's only solution is to have son-in-law Hamza killed. In other words, she embodies the reductive rape-revenge template and its uncharted consequences. The older woman's first instinct is primal: Self-preservation. At least twice, she sells a male friend down the river to cover her own tracks. But Badru, in contrast, is trapped in the tragedy of reality. She thinks of ways to "cure" her destructive husband; she is convinced that his drinking is the problem, and even considers getting pregnant to stabilize him. She assumes that her marriage – conceived from love and independence – is different from her widowed mother's history. (There's a bit of Gehraiyaan in how the dramatic ending connects heritage, chance and fate). But there are times when Badru strives to be the cold and stylish protagonist. That she struggles to do so – both in spite of and because of her mother – reaffirms the film's frank understanding of love. 

These clashing dynamics of the mother-daughter duo imply that the makers are aware of the boundary between social media discourse and real-world living. At times, the urban-lensed writing recklessly crosses this boundary – like when Shamshu makes a sly and entirely misplaced quip about how the world has evolved only for those on Twitter. Or with Badru's use of cutesy broken-English words. At others, the film smartly straddles the boundary – like in the moments that depict the disturbing normalization of domestic violence: Shamshu reacts rather matter-of-factly to the bruises on her daughter's face; a police inspector nonchalantly blames the women for letting their husbands behave badly; Badru herself gives in to Hamza's apologies every morning, forging a deep bond with the concealer on her dressing table. 

The design of the film teases out its subtext. The pink-and-blue colour scheme, especially indoors, tells a visual story. But it's the sound that becomes a character in the expression of a city that is bereft of space. Take, for example, the first time we see Hamza going off the rails. The scene starts like any other, with a man playfully praising his wife for her cooking. The second an errant stone ruins his mouthful of rice, the play of sound reflects the shattering of their outward veneer. All we hear is the ominous scraping of teeth against stone – this reverb invokes the trope that most movies use to heighten either sexual tension or body horror. Hamza's wife-beating is treated as a stray note in the symphony of middle-class noise. The parlour lady downstairs casually shrugs every time she hears Badru's stifled screams. The whir of kitchen devices become shields of denial and privacy.

Even the televisions in other flats get a little louder when Hamza returns from work every night, almost in anticipation of what might follow. Bollywood music filters through the thin walls of the chawl. The song "Main Agar Kahoon" is a recurring presence; it's also the ringtone of a primary character. When read from the heroine's perspective, the movie this song belongs to – Om Shanti Om (2007) – is about a woman rising from the dead to take revenge on the man who killed her previous avatar; he thinks she's the same person, but she's not. There's no better allegory for Darlings

Shefali Shah manages to contain a lifetime of trauma in her turn as Shamshu, a veteran who customizes the meaning of the frog-scorpion fable. I'd like to believe that Alia Bhatt's Badru is the tame future of Gully Boy's Safeena, had she gone on to date Vijay Varma's Moeen instead of Murad. But that'd be selling Bhatt and Varma short – both of whom manage to create a completely different universe in a not-so-different setting. Bhatt does well in a tricky role. Badru's transformation from victim to wannabe offender feels abrupt on paper, but Bhatt's performance lets one persona bleed into the other. In her hands, Badru is more heartbreak than rage, more deformed love than pure hatred. At times, it feels like Bhatt is play-acting even when Badru is not. But this can also be read as a symptom of the character's performative nature; she is conditioned to pretend rather than be. Tiny touches go a long way. When Badru's neighbour (Roshan Mathew) walks in on her angrily smashing plates, for a split second her rage morphs into fear. She is so terrorized by her husband that she can't even fall to pieces in peace. Once she realizes it's not Hamza, she proceeds to yell at the man, merely continuing her fury from where she left off. 

But the scene stealer of Darlings is, unironically, the man. Some of Vijay Varma's best performances are defined by the contours of toxic masculinity (She, Ghost Stories, Gully Boy, Pink). In Darlings, too, he gets all the red flags on point – the way he gaslights and sweet-talks Badru the morning after he assaults her; the way he switches from light to dark and back in an instant; the way he winces after hurting his wife, as though she is the one responsible for his madness; even the way he approaches anyone who intrudes on his family affairs. His sinisterness is so self-aware that it's almost predator-like: Hamza seems to be circling his prey even when he's consuming them. Varma also makes him the kind of man who's gleaned a fair bit from films like Kabir Singh (2019) – he ensures that we notice how disingenuous Hamza is when he acts all tortured to earn the sympathy of the partner he abuses. He's visibly aping the heroic man-child trope to soften her up. 

Darlings might have been just as relevant if it happened in a typical Maharashtrian chawl in Mumbai. But the choice of a Muslim locality – particularly in today's climate – amplifies the language of oppression; the stakes are higher when it's a (gender) minority within a (religious) minority. The redemption is deeper when the abuse, too, exists in the margins. Little script details like these make the movie richer. For instance, Hamza works as a ticket collector: A man who upholds the law in public, but viciously breaks it behind closed doors. Hamza is also the last resident standing between the chawl and its redevelopment, mirroring his status as the roadblock between Badru and her evolution. Shamshu's online catering business – a skill based on the inversion of kitchen stereotypes – is cheekily linked to the highs and lows of the women's 'plan'. The food lacks flavour when things go awry, but tends to taste delicious on a good day. 

Most of all, I like the way certain moments are composed to hint at the film's broader context. At one point, a scene opens in Hamza's office to convey he's missing. Yet, this information (like the man himself) comes last – the boss is busy watching a female participant ace the one-crore question on Kaun Banega Crorepati, before a Railway employee bursts in with news of two women brawling on a platform. In short, the two facets of Badru's quest – mental control and physical strength – are deftly written into the scene. It ties into how her wounded mind transcends her bruised body as the driving force of the narrative. It also speaks to how the psychology of bleakness transcends the physicality of humour as the core of a good black comedy. It will always be sad – not funny – that the scorpion was perhaps trying to kiss the frog, hoping to turn it into a prince. 

Darlings is available to stream on Netflix.

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