Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah and Vijay Varma are terrific in this dark comedy about domestic violence


Directed by first director Jasmeet K Reen, Darlings is a scathing critique of how toxic masculinity can wreak havoc and must be tackled before it’s too late. It is streaming on Netflix.

darlings is the story of a young lower middle class Muslim woman, Badrunissa – who lives in a Mumbai chawl – trying to make her marriage work with her abusive husband, Hamza. But when, despite her earnest attempts, Humza’s violence crosses the tipping point, she decides to pull the rug out from under him. What a cathartic experience it is to see her – a devoted, caring and submissive wife – turn the tables with such aplomb.

After a rousing performance in Gangubai Kathiawadireleased earlier this year, Alia Bhatt strikes again with darlings. The film marks her debut as a producer. Just like director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, darlings it’s also the story of a naive, hopeful woman who learns life’s harsh lessons the hard way and becomes her own, albeit reluctantly. Badru is so candid and wildly optimistic that you want to shake her out of her reverie. Her journey from an oppressed and abused victim of domestic violence to a restless woman reclaiming her own after losing everything demands nuance, depth and a kaleidoscopic ability to move. Bhatt effortlessly checks all the boxes. Even when the film’s humor fails to land, it doesn’t feel as out of place as it would have felt in the hands of a lesser actor. When Badru seeks revenge, Bhatt makes sure you don’t see the hate but the sorrow in his eyes. She adds credibility and gravity to the story, especially when it gets crazy and ridiculous.

Badru finds a willing partner in his single mother Shamshunissa, who lives in the same chawl a few houses away. She’s older and has more life experience, but Shamshu isn’t always the wiser of the two. Played by a brilliant Shefali Shah, Shamshu’s instincts are more primal. She believes in absolutes and wants definitive results. darlings dares to question morality in the way jalsa (2022), another fantasy film starring Shah, did. His ability to move (especially trauma) with his big expressive eyes is simply unparalleled. She’s just terrific in a climax scene when her past is revealed. It reminded me of two other fantastic scenes from his seminal films. The first is with Naseeruddin Shah in monsoon wedding (2001), when he apologizes to her at the end and asks her to join in the wedding festivities. The second comes from Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) when she force-feeds cake into her mouth out of sheer frustration after her husband’s cruel joke about her weight.

However, the real revelation of darlings is Vijay Varma. As a chronically alcoholic railroad ticket collector Humza, who controls law and order during the day and beats his wife at night, he is extraordinary. Humza is the kind of aggressor who is remarkably aware of his incorrigible toxicity. After bouts of drunken violence every night, he brings Bardu back to normalcy every morning. He’s the kind of man no husband – wait, no man – should be. Varma’s casting is a remarkable hit. His presence adds solid credibility to the middle of the film, which takes its title from him. He is the one who calls Badru darlings — a word that’s meant to be a sign of affection but turns sinister as the film progresses.

Directed by first director Jasmeet K Reen, darlings is a black comedy. It’s a difficult genre to break into. Although the film’s darkness overshadows its humor, the story of her and Parvesh Shaikh (who also wrote Queen) and dialogues by both of them and Vijay Maurya (who also wrote the dialogue for Ravine Boy) make sure it’s an exciting and rewarding ride. Maurya also plays the police inspector that the women constantly try to avoid but unknowingly come face to face. Add to this incredible talent pool music by Vishal Bhardwaj, lyrics by Gulzar and background music by Prashant Pillai, all of which add new dimensions to the story, heightening the weirdness and spunk of the film.

However, what I liked the most darlings is its attention to subtext and specificity. The film uses a popular fable of a frog and a scorpion to convey the message that a person’s inherent nature never changes. No matter what they may have you believe, a dog will bite and a scorpion will sting. Darlings could very well have been set in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, Kerala or any other part of the world and it would still have been so poignant, impactful and relevant. But the fact that Reen chose to set it in a Muslim household in a Mumbai chawl gives it a distinct character, an inescapable urgency. The chawl’s cramped space is a metaphor for Badru’s claustrophobic confinement – mental, physical and emotional. And the fact that she is a Muslim woman makes her a minority within a minority (gender, religion).

There is a scene in which a very angry Bardu breaks china in her kitchen after a particularly violent night with Hamza. Just then, a friendly neighbor Zulfi (Roshan Mathew) enters. For a second, she thinks it’s Hamza and instinctively covers her face, preparing for his attack. In this moment, Badru is unpacking three years of lived trauma. Though fleeting, it’s a heartbreaking moment that, without saying a word, speaks volumes about how insidious the trauma can be.

Next, Badru wears red — lipstick, high heels, nail polish, and a tight dress. She wears it the first time out of love. But the second time around, it becomes his chosen weapon of revenge. There is also a recurring motif of Badru’s date with superstition. darlings begins with her stray lemons and chilies thrown to the side of the road. A bird shits on her shoulder at a pivotal moment and she thinks it’s a sign of luck when in reality nothing is going right. We’re told she’s a woman changed by a black cat that crosses her path, but instead of changing course, Badru walks straight ahead with her head held high. It’s these little details that make Darlings what it is.

Although the film sags a little in the middle, we don’t see the end coming. It’s spectacular. I especially loved the last 20 minutes, the way Reen thoughtfully connects past and present and all the details to make sure Badru and Shamshu come out of this mess bolder, wiser. darlingskinda like the 2011 pakistani movie bowl, starring Mahira Khan and Atif Aslam, is a scathing critique of how toxic masculinity can wreak havoc and must be bravely tackled before it’s too late. It will also remind you of Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan in his comment on the cyclical nature of trauma and the fact that while we are not scorpions, we are all hamsters, caught in a wheel we cannot stop or get out of.

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