When a film deals with a matter as serious as domestic abuse, the least one expects is that the writers would round off every argument made during the course of the narrative, so as to avoid perpetuating misconceptions. Darlings does not.
The best comedy writers have what it takes to pull off humour around the most sensitive, painful realities. I am not here referring to outrage comedians, the ones who thrive on mocking victims and survivors, but those capable of deploying their wit to mock oppressors without trivialising the oppression itself. Alternatively, there are those who remind us that even while enduring pain and suffering, human beings might use humour to preserve their sanity.
Arguably the most famous example of this is Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful), set in a World War II concentration camp. Here at home just recently, the Malayalam film Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela (An Interval in The Land of Crabs / 2017) evoked laughter through the saga of a family coping with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis.
Now debutant Hindi director Jasmeet K. Reen gives black comedy a shot with Darlings, which she has co-written with Parveez Shaikh. This tale of a marriage beset by spousal abuse and set in Mumbai is superstar actor Alia Bhatt’s first as a producer. Alia herself plays the protagonist Badrunissa Sheikh who is routinely beaten up by her husband Hamza Sheikh (Vijay Varma). ‘Provocation’ for this man could be just about anything, including the rice at dinner not being perfectly cleaned. His excuse in retrospect each time is that he was drunk.
In the same chawl as the couple lives Badrunissa a.k.a. Badru’s mother Shamshunissa Ansari (Shefali Shah), a feisty single woman whose friends include an aspiring young entrepreneur called Zulfi (Roshan Mathew). Residents of the building are accustomed to hearing Badru’s cries whenever Hamza assaults her. She will not leave him because she believes he will reform. When he finally crosses a line that even she cannot tolerate, she teams up with Shamshunissa a.k.a. Shamshu for a bumbling attempt at vendetta.
Though Hindi cinema is primarily men-centric, several films in the past decade have delicately tackled wife beating and even marital rape, among them Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Kanu Behl’s Titli (2015), Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), Advait Chandan’s Secret Superstar (2017), Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019) and Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad (2020). Darlings stands out for its choice of genre.
When the curtain rises on Shamshu, Shefali Shah – fresh from her stupendous performance in Jalsa – is interesting as a mother who has no qualms about advising her daughter to leave, attack or even finish off her abusive husband. It takes an actor of Shefali’s calibre to swing between concern and a comical tone without letting one overshadow the other. The script’s intellectual limitations become evident early on though when goal of making Shamshu amusing plays havoc with her characterisation – she, in a sense, pimps Badru to get a discount from a trader, which is at odds with her protectiveness towards the girl at all other times.
Apart from Shamshu, there are hardly any indicators in the first hour that Darlings intends to be an all-out comedy. Only in the second hour of the 2 hour 14 minutes running time does the script up the ante in that department. It immediately struggles to sustain its funniness and balance it with the grim theme.
When a film deals with a matter as serious as domestic violence, the least one expects is that the writers had done thorough research before putting pen to paper and would round off every argument made during the course of the narrative to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions. Darlings falters inexcusably on this front.
The director and script do well in the scenes portraying Hamza’s proclivity for sadism, his extreme conservatism and cruelty towards Badru. Hamza’s actions are convincing and the tension in those scenes is palpable, but no effort is made to throw light on the complex psychology of intimate partner violence and the social conditioning that prompts a woman like Badru to believe she can change her husband or that it is her job to make him a better person.
Instead, in a scene at a police station, when a woman asks a rhetorical question, “Why do men turn into monsters after consuming alcohol?” a policeman replies, “Because women let them,” and his statement is left hanging there without qualifiers or counterpoints, barring a glare from the woman. Real people do talk like that, because real people are mostly ignorant or indifferent to domestic violence. The let-down here is Darlings’ handling of that ignorance.
One of the defining characteristics of patriarchy is that society always finds ways to blame women for the actions of men. If he rapes a stranger, it’s her fault for wearing a short skirt. If he strikes his wife/girlfriend, she must have done something to rile him. Darlings does not suggest that Badru gave Hamza a cause, but by not addressing the policeman’s statement, it ends up playing along with those who would hold her responsible for ‘allowing’ it to happen rather than holding him squarely and entirely accountable for his crimes.
There is no evident compulsion keeping Badru bound to Hamza – they have no children and her supportive, financially independent mother is anxious to take her in. Besides, in an idealistic scenario far removed from what Indian women face off screen when they try to report domestic abuse, here we are shown a liberal police department keen to punish Hamza instead of doing what families, society and police largely tend to do in actuality: that is, tell the women to grin and bear it, to keep the “ghar ka maamla” confined to the home, and so on.
How disappointing that a film on domestic violence lets a character point fingers at women for the savagery inflicted on them instead of exploring the complicated circumstances that drive women to stay in violent relationships.
Also left unaddressed is a seemingly progressive character saying that only a “naamard” would hit a woman. It takes incredible deftness for a film to be humorous about such a sombre subject without being offensive, to leave viewers with at least a tad bit more knowledge and awareness than when they entered the hall yet not sound like a lecture. Darlings does not have that finesse.
If you wade through the jumble of ideas in this script, there’s a pretty good one at its core. But Darlings is done in by its half-baked understanding of its subject, unsteady writing and direction. It’s not funny enough, it’s not profound enough, and the Hindi-English mix in dialogues written for Badru sounds desperate to be cute unlike the opening track with lyrics by Gulzar that is actually entertaining. The cast apart from Shefali is a mixed bag. Roshan Mathew (in a role that nicely overturns commercial cinema conventions in many ways), Vijay Verma, Rajesh Sharma and the others are adequate, but Alia’s acting is surprisingly uneven.
Surprisingly, because in the decade since she debuted playing a baby doll in Student of the Year (2012), she has been impressive in an array of tough roles including a towering performance in Gangubai Kathiawadi just months back. In Darlings, the dollishness keeps raising its head. Unlike Shefali, Alia is unable to achieve the right pitch in too many scenes in which she aims at light-heartedness in Badru’s interactions with Shamshu, Zulfi and the police. She is solid while depicting Badru’s heartbreak and anger, but her endeavour to find an equilibrium between these contrasts feels strained.
The inadequacy is as much hers as that of the hesitant direction. The final 20 minutes of Darlings is its best, well written, tightly edited and clear in its vision, but by then it is too late.
The decision to set Darlings in a Muslim milieu is far more well thought out than the treatment of the mindset governing Badru and Hamza’s relationship. At a stage in India’s history when Muslims are being demonised by the media, the polity and even sections of Hindi cinema, here is a film opting to draw its protagonists and antagonist, Badru’s predator and supporters, from within this minority community without over-stressing their Muslimness. This is what normalisation is. It’s a risky business, but in this area, Jasmeet K. Reen and Parveez Shaikh stay focused and do what quality cinema ought to: depict Muslims as people, with all the virtue and vice, beauty and evil that pervades the rest of humanity.
This clarity and a certain energy are missing for the most part from the rest of Darlings. Full marks to the squad for risk-taking. On the execution front though, it barely gets a passing grade.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5 stars)
Darlings is streaming on Netflix
Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial
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