Right away, one can acknowledge the fact that “Darlings” is not an easy film to watch – and yet, it’s one that many women may be able to connect with. The film is labeled a “dark comedy,” but while it does have some humorous moments, the basis for the storyline is a grim part of reality – domestic abuse. When looking at South Asian marriage culture, women are often taught to compromise, overlooking red flags, abuse of all forms and encouraged to protect their home. But what if that home is unsafe, a space where physical abuse occurs daily and creates more problems than happiness? When does an individual snap and say “enough”? This is the basis for “Darlings,” a new film on Netlix starring Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma, Roshan Matthew and Rajesh Sharma. The film is directed by Jasmeet K. Reen, written by Parvez Sheikh and Jasmeet K. Reen and produced by both Shahrukh Khan and Alia Bhatt’s production houses, Red Chillies Entertainment and Eternal Sushine Productions.
Alia Bhatt plays Badru, a young woman who had a “love marriage” to Hamza (Vijay Varma), the two seemingly deeply in love in the opening moments of the film. However, as the story progresses and leaps into their marriage two years later, the audience bears witness to the daily abuse Badru is subjected to. Whether it’s leaving raw rice in biryani or speaking to men without Hamza’s approval, Badru lives life on edge, constantly preparing for the next strike. Badru’s mother, Shamshunissa (brilliantly portrayed by Shefali Shah), is a refreshingly different parent, one who encourages her daughter to leave her abusive husband, shows concern for her daughter’s well-being and opens her home to her. And still, Badru continues to dream of a positive future……until Hamza, finally, shatters Badru’s dreams with a blow she’s unwilling to accept.
Calling “Darlings” a dark comedy is interesting, because the film isn’t really a comedy at all. There are certainly moments of humor in the second half, due to Badru and Shamshunissa’s antics, but the overall feel of “Darlings” is almost anxiety-inducing. The plus point is that it works as a whole. There are many critics of “Darlings” and those criticisms are generally focused on domestic abuse being glorified. However, is it glorified? Badru does not begin to fight back until she has been pushed to the very end of her limits – and even after this, she has her moments of softening towards her abuser. Credit goes to the writing for how Badru’s love for Hamza allows her to be blinded to her own plight. Despite support, she is always waiting for the man she loves to change. She’s always waiting for her happy home with a child – and it isn’t until that dream is brutally snatched away that she realizes she has had enough. This is the true face of domestic abuse. This is why victims continue to go back. Victims are attached to their abusers, love-bombed and are addicted to the “highs” (the sweet moments of making up) after the “lows” (the beatings). This is a true picture of reality and that’s why it’s easy to understand why Badru continues to go back and softens towards Hamza, even when she’s thrown her hands up. The dialogues also work in favor of the film, particularly those between Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt as the affectionate mother and daughter caught in a mess. It’s the relationship between mother and daughter that makes the audience want to root for these two strong, sweet, inherently good women trapped in a messy situation.
Alia Bhatt has been winning audiences over, truly a top actress of the times. She portrays Badru with an earnestness and helplessness, along with anger and frustration that she has built up over the years. There’s a vulnerability in Badru that has not been in many of Alia’s past characters and it allows her to give her audiences something new, another electrifying performance to add to her resume. Shefali Shah is incredible as Shamshunissa. Shefali is an absolute natural in a role that gives her scope to display a range of emotions and she proves, yet again, why she’s one of Bollywood’s most underutilized actresses. Vijay Varma makes choices while playing Hamza that are unlike what viewers would have expected – he is almost likable in his balanced moments and then an object of hatred at his worst….and it’s only until much later that viewers and Alia begin to realize – is alcohol the problem at all? Vijay Varma excels in this role and creates a horribly realistic villain. Credit to Roshan Matthew as the likable Zulfi who steps in to play sidekick to the ladies. Rajesh Sharma as Qasim is also a surprise element in the film.
This is not to say that the film isn’t without its share of flaws. For starters, “Darlings” could easily have been twenty to thirty minutes shorter. Direction-wise, many of the sequences feel circular and at times, the setting of the apartment can feel redundant and almost confining – yet, it’s these choices that allow the audience to “feel” the story and leave viewers thinking about the film long after it ends. Overall, “Darlings” is a strong, solid product with a strong social message. The acting is the real reason to watch “Darlings,” as the actors involved, particularly Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah, deliver applause-worthy performances.