Trigger warning: Mentions of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence
“Darlings”, directed by debutante Jasmeet K Reen, starring Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, and Vijay Varma in lead roles, is a dark comedy that revolves around an abusive marriage and how a mother-daughter duo navigates through it.
In many aspects, Darlings is quite a refreshing watch – be it the intersectional space the protagonists belong to, the witty exchanges between a worldly-wise mother and a rosy-eyed daughter, and the excellent performances by the cast that stay true to the genre.
Darlings introduces us to two women – Badrunissa Shaikh (Badru) and Shamshunnisa Anzari (Shamshu) played by Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah respectively. Badru lives with her government employee husband Hamza Shaikh (Vijay Varma), who beats her up night after night, for whatever trivial reason that angers him. The following day he would promptly try and make up with Badru by pinning his anger and abuse on his alcoholism, with proclamations of love.
In the same chawl as Badru and Hamza, lives Shamshu, Badru’s mother – a feisty, independent, single woman trying to set up a Dabba business with the help of her friend Zulfi (Roshan Mathew). Shamshu, unlike Badru, sees right through the kind of man Hamza is and keeps asking her daughter to leave the abusive marriage. But Badru sticks on, with an unshakable conviction in her husband’s ‘love’, hoping that she can fix amza and his ways.
Why do women stay in abusive marriages?
More often than not, it is the hope that the man would mend his ways, that makes a woman stay in an abusive marriage. In Badru’s case, she has no children to stick on for, and has a very supportive mother who urges her to come back home. Despite this, Badru sticks on because she believes Hamza loves her and that it is upon her to change him.
Where does Badru get this notion? Clearly not from her mother. Badru holds a mirror to a huge number of women who are conditioned and gaslighted by the patriarchy into believing that love and abuse can co-exist. Whenever Hamza senses that Badru’s devotion towards him is down by a notch, he is quick to cajole her with hollow promises and grand gestures of love.
Even when she eventually files a police complaint against him, he manages to use her desire to have a child to his advantage and walks free after convincing her that his abusive nature comes from his alcoholism and it is separate from the man he is and his love for her.
Director Jasmeet K. Reen shows how deep patriarchy has its claws lodged within women by brilliantly contrasting Badru’s gullible nature with her mother Shamshu’s no-nonsense attitude and her impatience with her daughter defending her abusive husband. Despite Bardu knowing that her mother is her safety net and encountering a too-good-to-be-true police station that seems to be very supportive of taking action upon her complaints, Badru sticks on until the day she realises that it is not alcohol that stirs the demon in her husband, but he himself is the demon she must slay.
How open conversations help to break violent cycles of abuse
As the viewer feels sorry for Badru, who endures violent physical abuse day after day, a sigh of relief is heaved when she meets her mother Shamshu, every day after Hamza leaves for work. Despite Badru not acting up on her mother’s advice to leave Hamza, she is well aware that she can confide in Shamshu and can count on her mother, come what may.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Darlings would be that open communication between a mother and daughter might as well be the best tool to break cycles of violent, generational trauma. As the story unravels, the audience learns that Shamshu has seen it all and done it all – and that the fight inside comes as a result of this.
Shamshu leads by example and reinforces that being independent and alone is much safer for a woman than leading a conventional, outwardly-normal, socially accepted marital life like that of Badru. What women need more than anything are fellow women like Shamshu, who offer safe spaces and assure that leaving an abusive relationship will only make them happier. For Badru, luckily, that friend is her mother.
Despite being anchored on a plot with immense possibilities, Darlings does falter at places when a character like Shamshu disses divorce as dangerous, that no one would marry her daughter again, and says that the world has only changed for those who are on Twitter. Darlings slips at places from the dark comedy it sets out to etch into being slightly slow and melodramatic, but as though like a quick afterthought, it slips right back on track to being enjoyable and witty.
The title track composed by Vishal Bharadwaj and penned by Gulzar is refreshing and endearing, but a continued smattering of cutesy plurals throughout the movie seems forced in places. Alia Bhat does a great job as the naive, hopeful, young Badru, especially in the first half where she oscillates between being abused and loved in repeated intervals by Hamza.
Vijay Varma is perfect as Hamza and he is successful in communicating the sadism and toxicity very effectively. In no instance has he dramatised or exaggerated the character. Rosshan Mathew’s Zulfi is a very refreshing and well-written character, and the actor has done justice by portraying Zulfi as a lovable, good-hearted, boy next door.
Topping all these delightful performances is Shefali Shah’s brilliant portrayal of Shamshu, which is nuanced and done with the correct amount of restraining needed to balance the lightness of the narrative with the gravitas of the topic. It is interesting that the movie is set completely in a Muslim milieu and all the characters – good and bad – are from within the community itself and it strays away from the usual Muslim stereotypes in Bollywood.
Badru is not an aspirational hero but rather, a cautionary tale on how the patriarchal society has made women believe love and abuse can co-exist. Darlings holds a mirror to the conditioning and gaslighting that makes a woman unable to acknowledge the complex structures of violence around her, let alone break free of them.
The film is streaming on Netflix.
Meenakshi Sajeev is a poet and Corporate Communication Strategist. She is the author of the anthologies “One Woman Island” and “The Unlabelled Happy Woman”. She can be found on Instagram and Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Mint