(A trigger warning since the film deals with the theme of domestic abuse)
Contrary to common belief, the key to making dark content (especially comedy) is not ‘anything goes’ but instead understanding and restraint. And Jasmeet Reen’s directorial debut Darlings operates on that understanding.
Jasmeet, who has previously worked on the screenplays of films like Fanney Khan and Force 2, leaves no avenue unexplored.
Badrunissa (aka Badru), played by Alia Bhatt is a superstitious woman married to an abusive man Hamza (Vijay Varma) and while she blames his alcoholism, the problems run deeper. Hamza is all but willing to buy into her beliefs since it excuses him from accountability.
Shefali Shah plays Badru’s mother Shamshunissa who is understandably protective of her daughter, in her own interesting (albeit concerning) way.
Darlings is dealing with a serious theme– domestic violence– and also attempts to explore the often-thrown-around question, “Why didn’t they leave?”
The film points out that it’s not just high stakes that Badru is dealing with but also dangerous consequences to ‘standing up’ for herself. Above all, Badru’s story is of agency– be it financial, mental, or societal.
Similar to films like The Great Indian Kitchen and Thappad, Darlings takes a long, hard look at how patriarchy plays into everyone’s life, regardless of gender, while also placing its lens on the role power dynamics play when it comes to one’s respect and identity.
Alia Bhatt plays a woman torn between difficult choices with ease, seamlessly weaving shades of the ‘old Badru’ into the new. The film’s star, however, is Shefali Shah, who brings both grief and comedy to the screen in equal proportions. Watching all the actors in the film (including Varma and Roshan Mathew) perform is an immersive and impressive experience.
Varma, who has earlier portrayed antagonists, leaves no stone unturned in his performance as Hamza. A huge reason for why the terror of a manipulative person like Hamza comes through is because of how well Varma plays the audience.
Darlings, written by Parveez Sheikh and Reen, doesn’t build a world of black-and-white. Even morality is seen through the lens of the story of the scorpion and the frog.
How far can Hamza go before Badru snaps? What is she willing to sacrifice for the life she imagined for herself? What, after all, is she fighting for? Every nuance is explored; every question answered.
A star to the film’s name comes from the way it deals with a triggering theme like domestic abuse. Instead of using graphic violence or shock value for empathy, the film shows only enough to create an atmosphere of terror and grief, aided by Varma and Bhatt who are both playing to their strengths as actors.
Even as the tables are turned on Hamza, how many people actually piece it together? Even though Badru and Shamshunissa’s plan is built on vibes at best…why is the idea that Hamza might be held hostage not apparent to more people?
Anil Mehta's cinematography takes us into the nooks and corners of Darlings' setting. The tight frames set on Badru accurately captures how suffocated she feels around Hamza, and the way the colour red factors into her sense of identity and freedom is immaculate.
The songs by Vishal Bhardwaj and written by Gulzar add a flavour to the film that elevates both the film and the emotions it's trying to inspire. Mixing his expertise with words with the inflection granted to the story results in a soundtrack that is as important to the film as its plot.
Satire is a tough tool and Darlings wields it well. Even though sometimes the satire might not translate and the pacing might wobble, the pros heavily outweigh the cons. The film’s focus remains on being modest and real– for instance, there are no unnecessary redemption arcs. Yet, its vision remains clear till the end.
Rating: 3.5 Quints out of 5