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    Darlings movie review: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma are terrific in this black comedy on domestic violence

    Darlings movie review: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma are terrific in this black comedy on domestic violence

    Darlings movie review: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma are terrific in this black comedy on domestic violence
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    By Sneha Bengani   IST (Published)

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    Helmed by first-time director Jasmeet K Reen, Darlings is a stinging critique on how toxic masculinity can wreak havoc and needs to be battled before it’s too late. It is streaming on Netflix.

     Darlings is the story of a young, lower-middle-class Muslim woman, Badrunissa — who lives in a Mumbai chawl — trying to make her marriage with her abusive husband, Hamza, work. But when, despite her earnest attempts, Humza’s violence crosses the tipping point, she decides to pull the rug from under his feet. What a cathartic experience it is to see her — a dutiful, caring, submissive wife — turn tables on him with such aplomb. 
    After a rousing performance in Gangubai Kathiawadi, which released earlier this year, Alia Bhatt strikes again with Darlings. The film marks her debut as a producer. Much like the Sanjay Leela Bhansali directorial, Darlings too is the story of a naïve, hopeful woman learning the crude lessons of life the hard way and coming into her own, albeit reluctantly. Badru is so guileless and foolishly optimistic that you want to shake her out of her reverie. Her journey from being the oppressed, abused victim of domestic violence to a woman restless to reclaim herself after losing her all demands nuance, depth, and a kaleidoscopic ability to emote. Bhatt effortlessly checks all the boxes. Even when the humor in the film fails to land, it doesn’t look as misplaced as it would have in the hands of a lesser actor. When Badru is seeking vengeance, Bhatt ensures that you don’t see hatred but heartbreak in her eyes. She adds believability and gravitas to the story, more so when it gets loopy and ludicrous.
    Badru finds a willing partner in her single mother Shamshunissa, who lives in the same chawl a few houses away. She is older and has more life experience, but Shamshu isn’t always the wiser one among the two. Played by a brilliant Shefali Shah, Shamshu’s instincts are more primal. She believes in absolutes and wants definitive outcomes. Darlings dares to question morality the way Jalsa (2022), another fantastic film starring Shah, did. Her ability to emote (especially trauma) with her large, expressive eyes is just unparalleled. She’s plain terrific in a scene in the climax when her past gets revealed. It reminded me of two other fantastic scenes in her landmark films. The first is with Naseeruddin Shah in Monsoon Wedding (2001), when he apologises to her at the end and asks her to join the nuptial festivities. The second is from Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) when she force-feeds cake into her mouth out of sheer frustration after her husband's cruel jibe about her weight.
    However, the real reveal of Darlings is Vijay Varma. As the chronic alcoholic railway ticket collector Humza, who keeps law and order in check during the day and beats his wife at night, he is extraordinary. Humza is the kind of abuser who is remarkably self-aware about his incorrigible toxicity. After drunken episodes of violence every night, he gaslights Bardu into normalcy each morning. He is the kind of man no husband — wait, no man — should be. Varma’s casting is a remarkable coup. His presence adds solid credibility to the milieu of the film, which gets its title from him. It is he who calls Badru Darlings — a word that’s supposed to be an endearment but turns sinister as the film progresses.
    Helmed by first-time director Jasmeet K Reen, Darlings is a black comedy. It is a difficult genre to crack. Even though the film’s darkness overshadows its humour, the story by her and Parvesh Shaikh (who also wrote Queen) and the dialogues by both of them and Vijay Maurya (who also wrote the dialogue for Gully Boy) ensure that it’s a thrilling, rewarding ride. Maurya also plays the police inspector who the women constantly try to avoid but unwittingly find themselves face to face with. Add to this incredible talent pool Vishal Bhardwaj’s music, Gulzar’s lyrics, and Prashant Pillai’s background score, all of which add new dimensions to the story, accentuating the film’s quirk and spunk.
    However, what I liked the most about Darlings is its attention to subtext and specificity. The film uses a popular fable of a frog and a scorpion to convey the message that a person’s inherent nature never changes. No matter whatever they may have you believe, a dog will bite and a scorpion will sting. Darlings could have very well been set in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, or any other region in the world and it would still have been as poignant, hard-hitting, and relevant. But that Reen chose to stage it in a Muslim household in a Mumbai chawl gives it a distinct character, an unavoidable urgency. The chawl’s cramped space is a metaphor for Badru’s claustrophobic confinement — mental, physical, and emotional. And her being a Muslim woman makes her a minority within a minority (gender, religion).
    There’s a scene in which a very angry Bardu is breaking china in her kitchen after a particularly violent night with Hamza. Just then a friendly neighbor Zulfi (Roshan Mathew) enters. For a second she thinks it’s Hamza and instinctively covers her face, bracing for his attack. In that one moment, Badru unpacks three years of lived trauma. Though fleeting, it’s a heart-wrenching moment that, without saying a word, speaks volumes about how insidious trauma can be.
    Then there’s Badru wearing red — lipstick, high heels, nail polish, and a slinky dress. She wears it the first time for love. But the second time around, it becomes her chosen weapon of vengeance. There is also a recurring motif of Badru’s tryst with superstition. Darlings starts with her sidestepping stray lemon-and-chilies thrown on the roadside. A bird shits on her shoulder at a pivotal moment and she believes it to be a sign of good luck when, actually, nothing is going right. We are told that she’s a changed woman through a black cat that crosses her way, but instead of changing course, Badru walks right ahead with her head held high. It is these little details that make Darlings what it is.
    Though the film sags a bit in the middle, you don’t see the end coming. It is spectacular. I especially loved the last 20 minutes, how Reen thoughtfully threads together the past and the present and all the loose ends to ensure Badru and Shamshu get out of this mess bolder, wiser. Darlings, much like the 2011 Pakistani film Bol, starring Mahira Khan and Atif Aslam, is a stinging critique on how toxic masculinity can wreak havoc and needs to be battled with courage before it’s too late. It will also remind you of Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan in its commentary on the cyclical nature of trauma and how, even if we are not scorpions, we are all still hamsters, caught in a wheel we can’t stop or break out of.
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