Domestic abuse tops the list of crimes against women in India on any given day. The conviction rate is abysmal mainly due to the confusion on what amounts to domestic abuse. Why? Because the “right” a man has over a woman once they're married and where she stands in the relationship has been etched in every holy book, and if there is one thing this nation, even the law, takes seriously, it is religion.
“There will be quarrels only where there is love.” This idea has a violent connotation and has been abused to the hilt by the patriarchal worldview lording over our society.
Jasmeet K Reen's 'Darlings' proved its point well before its release. #BoycottAliaBhatt was trending hours before the movie's release on Twitter because it promoted violence against men.
You see the irony, don't you? Indian cinema, which has always taken pride in setting the rebellious woman straight with a beating on screen, started feeling the heat the second a man was placed at the receiving end.
Jasmeet's debut outing throws light on domestic abuse through the lens of a dark comedy. Writers Parveez Sheikh (Queen, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Blackmail), Jasmeet and Vijay Maurya (Gully Boy) have concocted a decent and relevant story that is elevated by stunning performances.
Badru (Alia Bhatt) and Hamza (Vijay Varma) have been married for three years and live in a typical Mumbai chawl, which is a large building divided into many separate tenements, offering cheap, basic accommodation. They are a frog and a scorpion in love and call each other darlings. Hamza has a government job and Badru is a dreamer with a five-year plan that cannot go wrong if things move along as she intends.
But they are not without flaws. Hamza is an alcoholic, has major anger management issues, and is manipulative. He beats Badru over matters that can be ignored and then goes up to her the next morning to make amends with his sweet talk.
He even refers to himself as a 'jalaad' (monster) that needs to be put down.
Badru, on the other hand, is annoyingly optimistic. She is the kind of woman that turns a blind eye to the toxicity of the situation thinking it's a momentary lapse, every day. Badru's mother Shamshu (Shefali Shah) lives a couple of doors away from her and just wants her to see through the situation clearly and act on it.
Darlings spends no time beating around the bush and gets to the point five minutes into the movie. Jasmeet has an agenda to push and makes sure her craft speaks for her quite loudly. The movie never portrays Badru being tortured, at least brutally. Every time things go wrong with the couple, the scene changes to the aunty running a parlour downstairs feeling sad for Badru. It is for the audience to figure out how bad it was based on the noise and the bruises on Badru the next morning. This way, Jasmeet ensures the audience assumes the role of a neighbour, who is both privy and not to the troubles of the couple next door, just like in a chawl.
How Badru decides to stop being the purposefully naive wifey and decides to take things into her own hands with the help of her mother forms the central plot of Darlings.
It is the performances, as mentioned earlier, that ensure quality to an otherwise ordinary story. Alia Bhatt is the best among the young crop of actors and Bollywood better utilise her talent smartly.
Dark comedy seems to be yet another genre that suits her. 'Darlings', which is also her maiden production venture under the banner Eternal Sunshine, puts forth her strong stance on these topics as well.
Vijay Varma's transformation from a darling to a jalaad makes for the most intense scenes in the movie. There are moments you almost understand why Badru decides to give things another chance. He is effortless in turning his charm on and off. He is in complete control of the mood shifts.
However, it is Shefali Shah as Shamshu who steals the show, although it isn't a surprise. Shefali's filmography does not have a bad performance to date. Her choice of scripts is among the best in the industry. Her understanding of the character has multiple levels to it. She breathes through each shot. Whatever the setting, Shefali blends in like she's lived that life for a long time. Shefali's eyes speak volumes and Jasmeet has used it amply in Darlings.
The chemistry between Alia and Shefali is a fun energy and you want their scenes to run longer. Roshan Mathew as Zulfi delivers the goods as well. The man belongs to the pan-Indian actor label and is quite organic with his performance. He understands what is required of him and executes it neatly.
Even the cameos of the butcher, the police inspector, the station master, and the aunty running the parlour fit the landscape of Darlings. There is a moment of sisterhood shared between Badru and the woman running the parlour at a point in the movie, which makes for a scene of mild women empowerment.
Is it the best dark comedy out there? No. Is it a smart genre to talk about a serious issue like domestic abuse? Yes, if handled with care, which Darlings has achieved.
Kudos to Alia Bhatt for letting a woman tell a woman's story and not opt for a man's perception of her troubles. Eternal Sunshine is off to a promising start. The bar has been set. Hope to see a daring production house in Eternal that isn't afraid to get political with its choice of content.
As for Jasmeet, her launch is a laudable one. Let all her movies have the clarity of thought 'Darlings' has. 'Darlings' is streaming on Netflix.