The new Alia Bhatt-starrer, which lays bare domestic violence, shows how the Hindi film industry will benefit from women actors, if only it will give them the right platform
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Vijay Varma, Shefali Shah, Roshan Mathew
Direction: Jasmeet K. Reen
Streaming on Netflix
Women’s bodiesand thrillers have a very purana, janam-janmantar ka rishta. Most thrillers, especially the ones pivoted on revenge, use women’s bodies as a plot device. Rape, abduction, abduction-and-rape, dishonor, betrayal or the daily, cyclic routine of domestic abuse-love-domestic abuse has been the lot of women in these movies for over a hundred years. Mostly, all their suffering is grist for the hero to rise and shine. But sometimes it is also the crux of films that are bizarrely referred to as “women-oriented.”
In these ladies-special movies, the first half is dedicated to bashing women till they quake, weep, tremble, bleed and lie crumpled in bathtubs, or on kitchen or bedroom floors. In the second half, they are made to rise, Durga-Kali Ma style, to do same-pinch to their abusive husband/boyfriend/et cetera.
Enough, Sleeping With The Enemy, Khoon Bahari Maang, Provoked, Thappad, Ek Hassina Thi and many others before, after and in between follow the same story arc. And they all get their jollies from sudden, savage violence, though their most thrilling moments are the dramatic minutes preceding the violence – when there’s apprehension that the woman will be thrashed.
Since all these films are written and directed by men, they cast a salacious eye on the suffering woman. The violence is fetishised and the victim is a thing of sadistic, sexual pleasure. The gaze is especially lewd when the camera captures fear on women’s faces.
Darlings, directed by Jasmeet K. Reen on a script she has written with Parveez Sheikh, revisits and revises the genre. It doesn’t stare lustily on the woman’s face when she is traumatized and scared. Instead, it casts a more honest, credible eye on the woman, her world and why she continues to suffer. In fact, in its telling of the story of Badru (Alia Bhatt) and Hamza (Vijay Varma), Darlings makes sure that the joke is always on him.
The film’s first scene with the husband-and-wife duo in their Mumbai chawl house is horribly violent and tells us everything we need to know.
Theirs was a love marriage. He is a TC with Indian Railways who detests that he has to clean his boss’ toilet every day. She stays at home and dreams of life in a swanky apartment. Everyone in the chawl has accepted the builder’s terms, but Hamza is holding out because, in general, he is opposed to Badru having any desires. And on the few occasions when she does dare to express some, he thwarts them with that very special male cocktail of machismo and alcohol.
Even at dinner time, all culinary mistakes are treated as personal insults that deserve punishment. But in the morning, sab changa si and Hamza is all apologetic, sheepish and lovey-dovey. “Pyaar nahin karta toh marta kyun,” Hamza tells Badru and she believes him.
Badru’s Ammi, Shamshunissa (Shefali Shah), lives right across and goads her daughter to either leave her abusive husband or kill him. With every bruise on Badru’s body, Shamshunissa’s patience wears thin.
But Badru doesn’t seem too hassled by this nightly “repeat telecast.” Her faith in Hamza’s love for her is abiding and she really thinks that it’s the booze and not him. Once he stops drinking, she believes, the blows will also stop.
All the violence in Badru and Hamza’s house is scary, worrying and feels real. But the moment the film steps out, there is some sunshine and laughter.
Ammi and her world, which is made up of her love for Badru, her belief that Hamza will never change, afternoon cookery shows, and a food delivery business that’s to be launched with the help of her comrades-in-arms – Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), the seller of second-hand kitchen appliances, and the silent local butcher – light up the film with everyday chores and chatter.
Booze, Hamza’s andar ka jallad, work stress, Badru’s mistakes – one by one, the film strips all of Hamza’s justifications for violence so that Badru can see it for what it really is – not love that’s expressed through violence, but the deep-rooted hate of a misogynist.
Darlings‘ second half is less believable but very entertaining and fun, because it’s badla time.
Darlings doesn’t show Badru as a one-dimensional victim living in a strangely secluded, dark corner of the world. It doesn’t pity her either, nor does it sexualize her.
By placing Badru and Hamza’s house in a crowded chawl where the abuse is an open secret, Darlings makes a very significant deviation from the usual ‘all abuse happens in a house on the edge of the world’ trope. Darlings shows domestic violence as it is – not a secret, but a ghar-ghar ki aam kahani.
There are times when Darlings tries to act very cute by making both Hamza and Badru say “darlings, bad lucks, shits.” This needless “s” with every exclamation is a bit precious but in sync with the film’s mijaaz.
Darlings has an easy temperament and a comic tone that serve two important purposes – they demystify domestic abuse and treat it as an issue that can be tackled at the local thana, with the help of Ammi, or with a few ropes and pills. And, the jokes and laughter add a spring to Darlings‘ step, giving the film buoyancy and never letting it sink with sadness or hopelessness.
All theactors in Darlings are excellent, especially the troika.
Alia Bhatt is always very good and alluring. Here too she is excellent, though she feels a bit low-key. That’s because she submits herself to the part of Badru who is mostly confused, sometimes saddened by her husband who loves her but also has a wife-beating problem. Sandwiched between her husband’s abuse and her mother’s rage, she doesn’t stick with either for too long.
Vijay Varma is very, very good. Sharp and precise as he flits between the two personalities of the same man with ease, Varma is able to turn on the threat of violence with just a look or a twitch. When he acts on his violent urge, he is chilling, and when he cowers and pleads, he gives us some very welcome cathartic moments.
Shefali Shah is very good and, as usual, she uses her eyes and silences to convey more than words can. The scene where Badru disappoints her is piercing.
I liked Darlings for many reasons. I liked its story, the way it is told, its direction, music and acting, and I liked it because it confirmed what I have been thinking for a while.
Bollywood has been in the throes of a nervous breakdown for a while now because among the 10 all-time top-grossing Indian films, five are from South India, three have Aamir Khan, and two are Salman Khan flicks.
Emerging from the Covid-induced pandemic and existential angst, Bollywood decided that the way forward is to imitate S.S. Rajamouli & Co. But since Bollywood cannot think, walk and talk like them, it has been flailing and flopping.
Its big-budget films have drowned at the box office and its big male stars are singing, dancing and thumping their shaved chests in empty theatres.
But so singularly obsessed is Bollywood with big money and big male stars that it has missed an exciting development – several smaller, cheaper films, most of them led by female stars, have been getting a lot more love at the box office. Or, perhaps, Bollywood has noticed it and doesn’t care.
Someone needs to tell Bollywood, ki darling, if you want to survive, forget the Akshays, Ajays, Ranbirs and Aamirs, and invest instead in Deepika, Alia, Vidya, Jhanvi, Kiara, Kriti, Bhumi, Kangana and Yami. Aurat hi swarg ka dwaar hai.