Darlings, currently streaming on Netflix, marks a reasonably self-assured debut by Jasmeet K Reen. It is to Reen’s credit that despite bringing a darkly comic spin on domestic violence, she doesn’t sacrifice or dilute the core issue at hand. It is also encouraging that the film’s star, Alia Bhatt, doubles up as a producer (along with Gauri Khan and Gaurav Verma), on this film that has many relevant things to say and does so in a manner that is anything but formulaic.
In Darlings, Badrunissa Sheikh (Alia Bhat) or Badru and her boyfriend, Hamza Sheikh (Vijay Varma), get married after he manages to get a job with the railways as a ticket collector. However three years later, their marital life in a chawl of Mumbai is hardly the stuff dreams are made of. Badru’s desire to have a child remains unfulfilled while she is also subject to constant physical abuse from Hamza each time he drinks. Her mother Shamshunissa ‘Shamshu’ Ansari (Shefali Shah), also her neighbor, keeps telling her to leave Hamza. But Badru, still in love with Hamza, continues to be delusional and optimistic that she could change his ways and that all will be fine after the arrival of a child. The two women run a tiny lunch business along with the help of a struggling writer, Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), who is sympathetic to Badru’s situation. In due course, Hamza is diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and he is forced to give up drinking. Meanwhile, things look up as Badru becomes pregnant with Hamza’s child. However, suspicious of her relationship with Zulfi, Hamza cannot prevent himself from yet again physically attacking Badru causing her to lose their child. This is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back as Badru decides that it is now payback time…
Despite her noirish-horror-comic take on the film, Reen, along with her co-writer Parveez Sheikh, creates a credible milieu to set up her story. The scenes are written with freshness and originality while the use of succinct dialogues and economy of expression help to effectively narrate this poignant story of love, hate and reclaiming one’s faith in benevolence. Reen ensures the world of Darlings is inhabited by believable, fleshed out characters, who command our empathy or hatred as the case might be. Hamza turns into a monster post his evening pegs and brutally beats up Badru. Yet, he appears as a loving and caring husband, who is proud that his wife makes the ‘world’s best omelet’ during the day. A chauvinist, who stifles any decision making on Badru’s part (refusing to let her meet the builder for redeveloping their chawl), he justifies his acts of cruelty with the notion that every married couple has their ups and downs. Badru repeatedly gets taken in with the false assurances of her husband. But when the tolerance level of her resilience snaps, she displays a vicious incarnation and unleashes a tit-for-tat exchange of all the atrocious cruelties she has undergone so far. Shamshu, who lives along and has brought up Badru on her own following her husband leaving her, is a constant support to her suffering daughter. Though she suggests her daughter leave or even kill Hamza and come home to stay with her, she does not want her to divorce him. As she tells the cop (Vijay Maurya) that once her daughter gets a divorce no one will marry her. When he tries telling her things have changed, she retorts that it is so only for those on Twitter and not for people like her.
While Darlings has much going for it, it is unable to avoid its share of glitches. The first half of the film trudges along a mite too languidly and involves far too many scenes to reach the crux of the drama that gives the film its tonal shift. A darkly shocking secret that Shamsu has buried for so long is finally revealed at the climax in a most unconvincing manner that negates its impact. The procurement of the syringes and ampoules from the mental hospital by Badru and Shamshu through their well-wisher Kasim Kasai (Rajesh Sharma) seems to be too simplistic while the lengthy scene when Hamza’s boss, Damle (Kiran Karmakar), visits to collect the keys to the drawer, runs out of steam by the end. True, it elicits a comic moment or two but without adding much to the narrative. The retelling the frog and the scorpion story also seemed far too obvious, almost like underling in triplicate.
Alia Bhatt comfortably fits herself into the shoes of the submissive wife, Badru. Even in the scenes when she performs brutal acts on her husband, the expression on her face reveals that she is not an evil woman at heart. Shefali Shah as Shamshu brings charm and allure to her character. The non-verbal communication between Badru and Shamsu in some of the scenes of the film is a delight to watch. Vijay Varma as the bestial Hamza brings layers of complexity to the role and gives easily the best performance in the film. His sadistic manoeuvring is unpredictable and scary as is treatment of Badru. Roshan Mathew as the innocent Zulfi performs his role with an assurance though his character could have been sketched out better. He is a kind and generous person and does not hesitate to help Badru and Shamsu in all their devious plans despite being exploited. The supporting cast by Vijay Maurya and Santosh Juvekar as cops are convincing and add to the humour quotient of the film.
The technical departments work well in tandem to help realize Reen’s vision. Cinematographer Anil Mehta’s framings bring out the claustrophobia within the walls of the chawl and highlight the feeling of being helplessly trapped as experienced by Badru and Shamshu and later, Hamza. Nitin Baid’s editing deftly keeps the balance between the comic timings and dark moments of the film. The sound design by Anirban Sengupta emphasizes minute nuances, while covering indoor as well as outdoor locations. The dialogues of the film by Reen, Sheikh and Vijay Maurya bring authenticity to the world of the characters. The production design by Garima Mathur is apt and fits nicely within the milieu of the film though one can’t help but wonder if chawl spaces of Mumbai anywhere are that large. However, the background score of the film by Prashant Pillai is disappointing.
While Darlings has its share of imperfection, it manages to ride past most of them. The film’s stronger moments and fine performances make it well worth a watch. More importantly though, it establishes Reen as a filmmaker to look out for.
Hindi, Drama, Black Comedy, Color