Director: Jasmeet K Reen
Writers: Jasmeet K reen, Parveez Shaikh
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma, Roshan Mathew
Streaming on: Netflix
In Darlings, debutant director Jasmeet K. Reen is attempting an ambitious balancing act. The film is a comedy about a grim subject. The script has been written by Reen and Parveez Shaikh (who earlier wrote the superb Queen). Darlings is also about a woman finding her strength and her voice and coming to the understanding that husbands are less than essential.
The story, about a lower-middle class Muslim mother and daughter, must necessarily swerve between scenes of terrifying violence and laughs. The film starts with a thanks to Shanker Raman, director of Gurgaon and Love Hostel, which gives you some idea of the dark spaces the plot will veer into. The narrative flirts with absurd and impossible situations. Darlings wobbles, especially in the somewhat flabby second hour but eventually, Reen veers the story of Badrunissa Shaikh to a satisfying close.
Badru could be the meek sister of Safina Firdausi from Gully Boy (2019). Like Safina, Badru comes from a conservative working-class environment. But unlike Safina, Badru's aspirations are limited to her home, her husband Hamza and the child she desperately wants to have. Badru is a compliant, doting wife. So when Hamza crunches on stones that have accidentally been cooked in with the rice Badru has made for him, Badru puts her hand out in front of his mouth so he can spit into it. Badru believes that their love for each other (and eventually a child) will set the world right. Which is impossible because Hamza is manipulative, abusive and deeply insecure. He's also an alcoholic. And eventually, he pushes Badru too far.
A toxic marriage is rarely material for humour but Darlings manages to locate it. The title comes from the endearment that Hamza uses for Badru. He camouflages his creepiness with it. Hamza does terrible things, but manages to placate Badru with his oily affection. He maneuvers her emotions with the skills of a puppet master. Vijay Varma is brilliant as this awful man. Like a chameleon, Hamza changes colors. At home, he is horrifically controlling, but at work – he is a ticket collector – he is servile, starting each morning by cleaning his bosses' toilet. Hamza's bravado is hollow. Badru is the only opportunity he has to feel superior. Varma nails every shade.
So does Alia Bhatt. One of the pleasures of Darlings is to watch stellar actors in the same frame. Badru starts out tragically naïve – you almost want to save her from herself. Bhatt imbues Badru with compassion – and she allows us to see why certain women put up with so much. Shefali Shah does the same with Badru's mother, Shamsunissa, who everyone calls "Khalla". Khalla is wiser, more experienced. She knows what men like Hamza are capable of. Shefali is terrific as this feisty, defiant woman – especially in a scene in which Khalla reveals her own past. Badru and Khalla's relationship is the spine of the film. There's also Roshan Mathew, charming as Zulfi, their helper and confidante whose own love story takes a delightfully unexpected turn.
Reen creates a lived-in world in a Mumbai chawl. Cinematographer Anil Mehta uses the cramped spaces to underline Badru's confinement – she is trapped even within her own home, living by Hamza's strict rules. Here even red nail polish and high heel shoes become an act of rebellion. And pay attention to a pink teddy bear which becomes a metaphor for Badru and Hamza's relationship. Reen creates scenes of genuine dread – in one, a lunch box banging against the steps becomes terrifying. But the story alternates this with laughs. The humour is more of a hit and a miss. As the plot becomes more fanciful, the jokes land a little less. But the actors don't allow the soft spots in the writing to weigh the film down. The dialogue, co-written by Reen, Shaikh and Vijay Maurya, also helps to smoothen some of the rough edges. Maurya also plays the beleaguered inspector whom Badru and Khalla go to. When he tells Khalla that times have changed, she ruefully replies, "Twitter walon ke liye duniya badal gayi hai. Humare liye nahi (They may have changed for those on Twitter. Not for us)."
Maurya also wrote the dialogue of Gully Boy. The two films also share an actor – Vijay Varma and an editor, Nitin Baid. But Darlings is very much its own film. There is generosity of spirit, which makes it eminently watchable. This is the first film to be co-produced by Bhatt's production company Eternal Sunshine and it's a solid start. And do stick around for the longer rendition of the rip-roaring, mischievous title song, which plays over the end credits. The music is by Vishal Bhardwaj with lyrics by Gulzar Saab. The song has lines like, "darte darte hum dry fruit ho gaye". I was sold.