Dark comedy is high on ambition, low on ideas
The problem with films made on social issues in the Hindi film industry (more popularly called Bollywood), is their lack of sincerity. Not in tackling the issue, but integrating it with an interesting narrative. More often than not, the story fails to hold you beyond the mechanics of its social significance.
Another characteristic is the lack of discomfort you feel as a viewer. The representation of the suffering and pain cannot escape the “filmy” melodrama and often suffers from generational pitfalls.
‘Darlings’, for most parts, rises above those filmmaking traditions. It shows courage in trying to carve out a place not just for exposing domestic violence but also for Alia Bhatt’s protagonist, Badru. But somewhere along the way, the descent “down the flight of stairs” begins. And from there, Darlings can’t quite salvage itself.
Badru (Bhatt) and Hamza (Vijay Verma) marry after the latter lands a government job. It is a huge plus for a prospective groom in India to have one. The love marriage, almost three years hence, still suffers from Hamza’s alcohol-induced rage and physical abuse of Badru. It is the same story every day. Hamza gets drunk at night, repulsed by the work he is made to do, comes home, lashes out at Badru, and in the morning, tries to act apologetic and woo her. A police complaint almost sends Hamza to his doom but he sweet talks his way out of it. Shamshu (Shefali Shah), Badru’s mother, tells her to be cautious around a vengeful Hamza, who tries to figure out who made the complaint.
At work, Hamza discovers the drinking has damaged his liver and he’ll die soon if he doesn’t stop. He does, and things are looking up, for a while, as Badru bears a child. As fate would have it, Hamza’s paranoia gets the better of him and he suspects infidelity on Badru’s part when he gets to know it was Zulfi (Roshan Matthew), a family friend, who had made the complaint. From there, Badru turns on Hamza and conjures her darker, primal side to deal with him.
Domestic violence has pestered the Indian household for a long time. The practice of abuse and entitlement comes from the idea that the female is a “possession” of the male. This mindset is a generational legacy that we have, as a nation, carried on into the 21st century. It is not necessarily representative of our identity or our philosophical musings on the position of women in society but is certainly reflective of an ongoing problem destroying people’s lives. ‘Darlings’ has some stark moments of action that do evoke resentment. They are confronting not only on the surface but beyond it as well, forcing you to introspect.
Director Jasmeet Reen churns the fleeting undercurrents of emotion in the story into fully fleshed-out societal themes. Her canvas is wide and her generosity and loyalty to the themes if admirable. Bollywood films do not allow directors to have voices of their own. Producers are looking to present films in ways that will only see them turn a profit. So Jasmeet standing her ground and laying the traps of her story without compromising the central stream of thought deserves credit. Even her framework of defiant women in the face of adversity paints a glowing picture. Its strength is that it is not too self-indulgent and responsive to the dynamism in her narrative. The outlier is the ability of the structure to absorb deviations with its chin up.
There is certainly a distinguished pedigree in the personnel involved in the film. For those who aren’t familiar with Bollywood, Alia Bhatt is probably the industry’s most talented star with immensely powerful roles under her belt. She finds top form while navigating playing a simple girl with grounded, affecting personal goals; and a turned, wounded woman bent on changing her life. Vijay Verma is fresh off his success in Mirzapur but confronts a different challenge in the shape of his sociopathic Hamza. His character build-up is engaging and fascinating for how he internalizes the anger and entitlement of his male privilege.
The menacing intensity is reminiscent of Fahadh Faasil in Kumbalingi Nights (another splendid movie you should check out). In those violent moments, he truly owns the screen and holds you like glue. Shefali Shah brings an unfamiliar innocent and child-like spontaneity to her character, Shamshu, who is unlike any Indian mother we have seen. Roshan Matthew gives a steady performance in his Hindi debut.
Tonally, the shift from the first half to the second is a bit disappointing. Post the galvanizing moment in the narrative, the storytelling falls off a bit. The film, unfortunately, peaks in the first half and falls short of ideas going into the third act. There is not a lot on offer for you as a viewer, especially if you have seen films of this kind before. Repetitive might be easy sounding than redundant. But it is probably the right word to describe the end product. The uniqueness of the performance and the refreshing change from mainstream commercial films of heroes and heroines are ‘Darlings’ key takeaways.
Read More: Darlings Ending Explained
Verdict - 6.5/10