Netflix’s Darlings is a dark comedy par excellence, helmed by powerful performances by Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah. The film deals with the question that Indian women have heard time and again, “Why don’t you leave it if it is so bad?”
Directed by Jasmeet K. Reen, the film shows how crucial and refreshing it is to have female filmmakers who understand the layers of being a woman in India, especially the ones who lie at the cross sections of caste, class, and religion. She negotiates the universe of Badru and Shamshu without being insensitive. The balance of restraint, infused with dark comedy elevates the narrative, and the dialogues, co-written by Parveez Sheikh and Vijay Maurya, carry the film forward.
Despite using the trope of the comic, the seriousness of domestic violence is never downplayed.
Badrunissa aka Badru (Alia Bhatt) is a superstitious young woman married to an abusive man named Hamza (Vijay Varma). Hamza is someone who, like many Indian men we’ve heard stories about, comes home after a night of drunken revelry and beats up his wife. What pans out is a story of retributive justice, sympathy, and female solidarity. In its essence, Darlings is a mother-daughter story through hardship.
A talent mix
Alia Bhatt in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) showed that she is a rare female actor in Bollywood who can drive a film with both critical acclaim and commercial success. Bhatt turns producer in Darlings, and it’s a bet that pays off.
She shines as Badru and showcases commendable finesse. She holds her own in front of Shefali Shah, a flawless actor in her own right. The latter only gets better from her bit in Amazon Prime Video’s 2021 film Ajeeb Daastaans. Negotiating the comic and the grief in equal measure, in Darlings, Shah plays Shamshu, Badru’s mother and an aspiring home chef.
The story is set in a fictional chawl in Mumbai that has largely Muslim inhabitants. One of them is Hamza (Vijay Varma) who is caught in a different web of violence due to his minority status in the office — he is routinely subjected to the whims of an incompetent boss and made the butt of everyone’s jokes. He is relatable because we all know him — the man who will not deal with his issues and, instead, vent his frustration on his wife.
That adds a disturbing element to the film. Vijay Varma puts his soul into portraying the reprehensible character — but viewers also feel a sense of sympathy when Badru and Shamshu turn the tables to torture him as retribution.
Rosha Matthew as the co-conspirator does his bit well, and Vijay Maurya, playing an over-smart police officer trying to break the mother-daughter solidarity, leaves a lasting impression. His manner is pompous and he thinks he sees through everything. But the mother-daughter duo easily outsmart him.
The universe of revenge
The Indian film industry has seen brilliant takes on patriarchy in films like The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) and Thappad (2022). Darlings is an addition to this brand of films, which takes an incisive look at the layers of the problem when it is cut by caste, class and religion.
When the going gets tough, Badru and Shamshu decide to turn the tables on Hamza.
It’s equal parts comic and cathartic to watch Hamza get a taste of his own medicine. Shamshu’s casual suggestion of using poison to kill Hamza and the interrogation scene at the police station — now the material for multiple memes — reflect strong scriptwriting and talent.
You never forget the horrific treatment of Badru by Hamza. But you also marvel at her refusal to crouch into the corner. Darlings shows how abuse is never only physical. The psychological hold a person has over a victim is much stronger, which can be very triggering for some viewers. But Darlings doesn’t disrespect any victim of abuse, unlike what a lot of people were recently talking about on Twitter.
The film is also about female solidarity — the determination to survive. Shamshu and Badru’s relationship is the high point of the film that shines bright.
Netflix hasn’t managed to make a lot of forays into desi content and is losing viewership too. Darlings might be a step in the right direction to reclaim its space in India.