By Pradeep Menon Aug. 05, 2022
Darlings take its sweet time to get going, but is shouldered by three impeccable performances that become the mainstay of a film happy to avoid genre clichés.
All you really need to know about Alia Bhatt’s Badrunissa is revealed in the first sequence of Darlings, accompanying the opening credits. The young lady gets off a public bus in a crowded but swanky commercial South Bombay neighbourhood, strolling without a care in the world. She eventually meets the young man she is clearly into. He has promises to make, and she is eager to hear all about them, ready for him to live up to them. You see, Badrunissa is all about hope, someone in it for her gilded dreams. She is happy to navigate the present because she is unshakeably positive that her future is worth living for. Now, saying Badrunissa doesn’t come from privilege would be an understatement. Neither her gender, nor her socio-economic markers indicate that her own plan would supersede the one that the world has already written for her. Things inevitably go as per the latter, until she finally decides that enough is enough – it is time to take matters in her own hands and fight ‘the plan’.
Debutante director Jasmeet K. Reen’s Darlings is, in that regard, in the same general zone as another recent Hindi streaming release, Good Luck Jerry. In both films, a young female protagonist is embroiled in things she considered unthinkable, let alone do-able. Both films are dark comedies, but somehow this film seems even darker than that one, because the burn here is slow. Darlings is grotesque and gentle in equal measure, unhurried about revealing its core takeaway. It is a film that is both unique and familiar, all at once. It is an unabashedly violent film that is also obviously anti-violence.
Darlings is grotesque and gentle in equal measure, unhurried about revealing its core takeaway. It is a film that is both unique and familiar, all at once. It is an unabashedly violent film that is also obviously anti-violence.
Badrunissa’s husband Hamza (Vijay Varma) is a savage man of the Kabir/Reddy variety. In his head, his savagery is only a sign of his love for his wife, nothing more. Hamza’s violence also appears to be frequent and brutal, even as the apologies after are meant to be sincere. Badrunissa’s only refuge, her partner-in-crime, is her mother (Shefali Shah). There’s a metaphorical story about a scorpion and frog that finds recurring prominence in the film. The moral of said story is that a scorpion will always sting. The rocky dynamic between these three characters – the mother-daughter pair and Hamza the husband – is the bedrock of Darlings. It plays out at an unusually measured pace, escalating its conflict one ugly domestic quarrel at a time.
What a joy it is, to watch three totally different actors at the top of their game play off each other. Bhatt is the prime mover, a picture postcard of naivete and resilience. This is an actor whose presence ‘in the moment’ is non-negotiable. The gamut of situations she faces through the film are meant to make you uncomfortable, but there’s a solace in seeing Bhatt be the one to bear the brunt of Badrunissa’s wretched fate. Shefali Shah’s markedly different vibe as the mother – with dreams and aspirations of her own, mind you – is the cherry on top. This mother-daughter duo is so in sync, they often communicate only through expressions. The audience is never privy to exactly what has been said between the two – only that wordless, efficient communication has taken place, and something is brewing.
Vijay Varma, then, is left to play perhaps the hardest role in the film. Varma turns Hamza into an insouciant man you wouldn’t trust from a mile away, but you’d reluctantly lend him an ear if he wished to talk.
Vijay Varma, then, is left to play perhaps the hardest role in the film. The two women are, after all, meant to have the audience’s sympathy. Varma turns Hamza into an insouciant man you wouldn’t trust from a mile away, but you’d reluctantly lend him an ear if he wished to talk. The brutality he inflicts is of the most insidious kind, the one that plays out behind closed doors. He seems unflappable even in a police station, in the face of the dreaded 498A. Probably because the wheels in his mind are already in motion, planning his next act of brutality. He is always simmering, particularly when a failing liver forces him to replace the alcohol with packaged fruit drinks. Yes, he’s a drinker. But the film is clear about the fact that he isn’t violent because of the alcohol. That’s all on him.
Darlings is essentially an escapist take on the very real problem of domestic violence, something that all of society is a participant in. You see it in the assortment of characters that populate the world around this dysfunctional family. Like the downstairs parlour-waali didi, who can literally hear the sounds of the abusive marriage through the thin walls. Badrunissa has her sympathies, but not her visible support. There’s a neighbourhood butcher, a man who Badrunissa’s mother trusts implicitly for some reason, leading to a late reveal that adds a further layer of complexity. The Mumbai cops looking into the various possible criminal angles playing out in the story are on point.
Darlings is essentially an escapist take on the very real problem of domestic violence, something that all of society is a participant in.
Vijay Maurya, who has co-written the film’s dialogue and also features as the senior cop, deserves a chef’s kiss. Along with Bhatt, Varma and some familiar Bombay locations, he becomes yet another element in the film that reminds you of Gully Boy while watching Darlings. A couple of other inoffensive touches and flourishes seem unnecessary to the story, like a chawl redevelopment angle that keeps popping up with no real relevance, and Roshan Matthew’s turn as the neighbourhood every-handy-man with an affinity to the two darlings at the centre of the story. A late-stage surprise romance is one of the film’s many added quirks.
Darlings is the kind of film that’s quite difficult to slot. Dark comedy, social drama, thriller, it is all of those and somehow, none of those. Whichever lens you choose to look at it, the film isn’t screaming for your attention. It wants you to submit to its considerable length of your own accord, because director Reen chooses to eschew moments that are designed to hook you and reel you in. In this age of reels, it seems like a film that is both out of time, but also absolutely relevant to the moment.