For someone who has seen many women around be survivors of spousal violence, Darlings terrified me. I felt Alia Bhatt’s fear even before the violence was being inflicted on her — it left me unsettled, furious and helpless. The fear of being hurt (even though it was not me) by someone you love and trust can bring your whole world down, and what’s even worse is to live with your abuser.
Starring Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma and Roshan Matthew, Darlings is directed by debutant filmmaker Jasmeet K Reen and it deals with the grim subject of domestic violence. Badrunissa (Alia Bhatt) and Shamshunissa (Shefali Shah), a mother-daughter hailing from a lower middle-class family, are victims of domestic abuse. Badru is married to Hamza (Vijay Varma), who plays an alcoholic, abusive and manipulative husband, while Badru is a superstitious, doting and forgiving wife who believes Hamza will change with the power of their love and a child.
Shamshu tells Badru to leave him and stay with her, but the latter is convinced that once he leaves alcohol, he will stop the violence. There are various incidents in the movie that are extremely triggering. In one scene, Hamza bites into some stones while eating dinner. Badru immediately puts her hand out and he spits it in her palm — the fear in her eyes is telling of their relation. It left me scared. When it happens again, he throttles her. However, the next morning Hamza is extremely apologetic, convinced that it's the alcohol that's the villain here.
What Darlings gets right in comparison to most films that deal with domestic abuse is the fact that it does not glorify violence or condition the survivor to stay in a marriage that's governed by fear.
It does not make women justify that it's okay to cling to a relationship just for societal, financial or any other reason.
Shamshu, who herself had an unworthy husband, is a mother who supports her daughter and tries to convince her to leave Hamza. She breaks the mould by teaching Badru that no amount of reason will bring about a change of heart in men who are abusive by nature. Badru refuses and tries to 'fix' him. As the film progresses, the film uses the popular scorpion and frog tale as a metaphor to explain that an abuser will remain an abuser.
Darlings is a story that tells women, “It’s time to take the reins in your hand, darlings.”
Films Dealing With Abuse
Apart from Darlings, another film that gets it right when it comes to speaking against violence is Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad, starring Taapsee Pannu in the lead. It’s a film that tells you women/wives are not objects, they are individuals whose lives cannot revolve around their partners. Most importantly, even one slap is not okay.
In my opinion, when we are in a relationship we make excuses for the people we love no matter how much they hurt us. But Thappad raises the right questions, not just about marital abuse, but also about how never-ending expectations are bestowed upon women once they are married.
Thappad talks about how patriarchy is passed down from one generation to the next and it won’t stop until someone takes a stand.
When Amrita's husband (played by Pavail Gulati) slaps her in full view of family and other guests, no one stands up for her. In fact, her mother lectures her on adjustment and how “maayka” is just a place to visit and not return to permanently. The unwritten rule stated by the society is that once married, a woman has to stay with her husband and in-laws and assume the roles of a dutiful wife and daughter-in-law. From managing the kitchen, taking care of in-laws, packing the husband’s lunch, dropping him to the car, and watering the plants — there's no end to the chores dumped on women. Their fate remains tied to their husbands.
Sinha, through the movie, also makes us realize that no act of violence, not even once, should be tolerated with. Thappad is the wake-up call that men and women needed.
Lipstick Under My Burkha
Alankrita Srivastava's film points out how some women are unable to leave abusive marriages because of circumstances. Konkona Sen plays Shireen Aslam, a housewife and a mother of three boys. She secretly works as a door-to-door saleswoman. Her husband Rahim (Sushant Singh) is sexually abusive and is against the use of contraceptives. As a result, Shireen has to take recourse to birth control pills. She even undergoes multiple abortions, risking her life in the process.
While Shireen yearns for his affection, Rahim only uses her to please his sexual urges. The hard-hitting story points to the humiliation and torture thousands of women have to endure on a regular basis.
Films That Have Glorified Violence
For years, domestic violence on screen has had a problematic depiction. Often we have seen abuse being normalized, where the woman initially retaliates but eventually goes back to the abuser.
Kabir Singh (remake of Arjun Reddy), starring Shahid Kapoor in the lead, is a film that celebrates misogyny. It's a story about a toxic, alcoholic man who feels entitled and believes it's his right to physically abuse his lover, a woman with no agency. The film glorifies violence as the woman in question (Kiara Advani) does not take a stand. Kabir Singh celebrates toxic masculinity and it's appalling that people have sympathized with the character.
This is not a recent occurrence though. In the past too, films have displayed misogyny and justified it in the name of love, passion, power play or simply inequality between men and women.
A scene in Hum Aapke Hain Koun shows Ajit, an educated man, slapping his wife when she curates a situation that leads to misunderstanding in the family. She does not hit back.
Mehndi (1998), directed by Hamid Ali Khan and starring Rani Mukherji, showed the protagonist being tortured at the hands of her husband and his family when her father cannot give them money. She continues to live with them without confiding into anyone. As the film progresses and her husband is framed for a murder, the 'dutiful wife' (who is also a lawyer) does everything to save him, even if it means sleeping with another man. Though it doesn’t happen, it is suggested and she agrees. Once she clears his name the abuse begins again and she only stands up after an incident that would break anyone. She stands up, yes, but should that have happened after she has endured so much?
Here’s hoping that films, which are not just a means of entertainment but also wield the power to educate people, highlight the dark side of society as well. It’s time that the world changes, and not just “Twitter wallon ke liye” (like Shefali says in Darlings). It’s time films stop exploiting women’s trauma and stop normalizing misogyny or abuse. Instead, they need to be called out again and again.