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Badru’s (Alia Bhatt) love for Hamza (Vijay Varma) is like a clear blue sky: comforting, constant, omnipresent. His presence for her is like a foreboding dark cloud: frustrating, obstructive, unpredictable. Their marriage seems like a play of light and dark. One moment, a smiling Hamza is eating dinner; the other, he’s throttling her. The next morning, he’s hugging her. This pattern of love and abuse has recurred for years. Each night: dark clouds; each morning: blue sky. As the mornings get shorter, and the nights get longer, Badru starts getting more and more hungry, craving something impossible: dignity.
A new Netflix release, Darlings, interrogates domestic abuse in such unflinching detail that it feels both disturbing and triggering. It’s not all gloom though. Badru’s mother, Shamshu (Shefali Shah), whose husband died many years ago, has seen so much horror in her life that she’s only left with humour. She is Badru’s buddy, bulwark, and mentor, giving her life lessons, ribbing her, even comically suggesting she bump Hamza off. Then there’s Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), their friend and neighbour, a shady salesman who wants to be a screenwriter – a man who is everything that Hamza is not: sweet, amiable, teetotaler.
But in the conservative cash-strapped world of Badru and Shamshu – always bubbling with plans and desires – the most playful bits come from an unlikely source: English. Comfortable in Urdu, the mother-daughter duo doesn’t speak the language as much as caress and showcase it. Their linguistic madness has a method to it. Just listen to the words that roll off their tongues: “shits”, “loves”, “good lucks” and, of course, “respects”. Their hunger, their desire, is so heightened that they’ve rendered the language inadequate, squeezing out the plural from the singular, lunging to break class barriers, using communication as overcompensation.
The impressive tonal variations ensure that Darlings is almost always unpredictable. Badru and Shamshu’s chemistry keeps the mood light after a heavy beginning – especially the hilarious stretch where they believe they’re being arrested for thinking to kill Hamza – making its subsequent bitter pills even tougher to swallow. A story pivoted on horrific domestic abuse runs the risk of being too gloomy, too suffocating, too linear. But filmmaker Jasmeet Reen (also the co-screenwriter along with Parveez Sheikh) do an excellent job of escalating tension and sustaining intrigue. With every abusive behaviour of Hamza, they tell us something new about him and Badru. Nothing happens in a flash. Hamza hits, rationalises, manipulates, lies, resolves to change – and, for a brief while, does change. Badru soaks, pleads, rationalises, hopes, gets manipulated, pleads, hopes, begs – and, for a brief while, does feel happy.
There’s no overt commentary here, but the subtext is always alive, cognizant of the easy obvious questions: “Why did she not leave?” “Why did she not approach the cops?” “Why did she not listen to her mother?” Well because, as the film shows, step by step, scene by scene, it is near-impossible for Badru to differentiate between hope and despair. Every fight leads to reconciliation; every breaking point finds a promise – one chance, last chance. The movie even takes a panoramic sweep to reveal Hamza’s humiliation: a ticket collector who cleans his boss’ toilet, absorbs his insults and endures a dead-end job like a dead man. He’s a despicable villain yet complex, a gasping loser in the race of competing masculinity.
Like most good films, Darlings is aware of its own big picture: that it’s ultimately a story about women’s love, heartbreak, rage, and revenge. Like most good films, Darlings is more than the sum total of its plot points. When Badru and Shamshu capture and torture Hamza, it doesn’t slip into a comfortable vengeance mode; there’s considerable tension within that story itself, surprising us right till the end, revealing newer facets of the mother and daughter. It is, after all, also a film about people’s fundamental nature – and the exasperating difficulties to remold that essence – making the climactic plot twists an excellent illustration of the story back-patting theme.
Darlings, for the most part, is in sync with its pulse. Which is why few of its failings, marked by Reen injecting ‘spice’ into her film, reek of needless desperation. Zulfi, for example, asking a cop whether kidnappers get bail, stoking his suspicion, doesn’t seem credible. Or Badru and Shamshu filing a missing person’s complaint, while knowing Hamza’s whereabouts, making the cops search their house is similarly illogical. In fact, the whole climactic subplot centred on cops – which eventually doesn’t amount to anything substantial, except for momentarily building false narrative tension – is a complete misfire.
But even when the film doesn’t sporadically work, it’s never not intriguing, due to compelling performances. A large share of the credit goes to casting itself, pairing together actors not seen in Hindi cinema before. It’s the unusual combination of Varma and Bhatt, in fact, that makes their marital discord more unpredictable and sinister. Or Mathew and Varma bouncing off contrasting energies – ditto Mathew and Shah, going as far as producing a delectable twist.
But Darlings saves its best for its leading women. They get the best lines, the best jokes, the best repartees – they elevate the film, and the film elevates them. Shah and Bhatt are one of the best Bollywood actors, but here, their collaboration outshines their individual glow. When Shah is burning the screen, Bhatt recedes in the background, providing one match after the other. When Bhatt is in her element, Shah punctuates the scenes with opportune cues. High and low, hot and cold, raw and soft, it’s all in there – it isn’t just acting; it’s jugalbandi. They carry the film so well that they end up justifying every little thing in it, even its title, which on a considered look doesn’t seem like an endearing grammatical error – a singular noun used as plural – but a collective gratitude from the makers, even the audiences, telling the pair how precious, how important, they are to this smug industry: original performers in the sea of second-handers, the real darlings who can teach the rest of Bollywood what it means to live, to love.