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Darlings Is Daring, Not Superficial

By SREEHARI NAIR
August 12, 2022 10:39 IST
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I cannot think of another Hindi movie that has, without so much as a hint of cynicism or speechifying, brought out that fundamental fact of Muslims being an integral part of the Indian culture while being at the same time a subculture with its own polite niceties, observes Sreehari Nair.

Darlings

There are two ways to squeeze the fun out of last week's Netflix release, Jasmeet Reen's Alia Bhatt starrer, Darlings.

You can either go on and on about the movie's moral fable-like quality and how it's a stunning denunciation of domestic violence against women; or, you can describe the work using such throwaway words as 'delicious' and 'wicked', and thereby give psychic ammunition to those who are claiming that the movie glorifies abuse of men.

For my part, I think there's a more interesting way to look at Darlings, which might also be the correct way to look at it.

Darlings' daring is that it doesn't aim to be merely *about* domestic violence; on the contrary, it's a comedy set *around* a prickly subject like domestic violence.

Jasmeet Reen's debut feature has a unique spirit and vision, both of which you can trace in how the movie repeatedly raises everyday imageries to the level of macabre -- so much so that you may be left biting your nails while simultaneously trying to draw up 'connections' in your head.

For example, when Vijay Varma's Hamza, the wife-abusing Ticket Collector of this story, climbs the stairs leading to his apartment, disturbed and ready to go all medieval on his petrified wife, Alia Bhatt's Badru, Hamza drags his empty tiffin box up the stairs, very much like one of those serial killers we so frequently meet at the movies, the psycho who drags the sharp weapon of his choice as he approaches his whimpering prey.

While we are at it, you can also trace the spirit and vision of Darlings in the uterine colours of the dingy apartments that make up the narrative. And just as I was reading this stylistic choice as an ode to motherhood, fulfilled and unfulfilled, I was smacked in the face with a riot of suddenly-appearing Almodovar reds.

When Alia's Badru decides that she must dispose of her husband, but before that she has to rid herself of her feelings for him, she acts like no other wife in the history of Indian Cinema.

The comic scenes that follow Hamza's house-arrest by Badru feel compulsively improvised, and they too contribute to the film's unique spirit and vision. In these scenes, a drugged and bound Vijay Varma, responding catatonically to stimuli and commands, resembles one of those clueless audience contestants we have seen on improv-shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway?

 

IMAGE: Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt in Darlings.

A word about the setting, yes.

I cannot think of another Hindi movie that has, without so much as a hint of cynicism or speechifying, brought out that fundamental fact of Muslims being an integral part of the Indian culture while being at the same time a subculture with its own polite niceties.

The police station scenes involving Shefali Shah's Shamshunissa, Badru's forever restless mother, and her daughter Badru, are tinged with the running theme of the mother-daughter pair trying to explain to the Maharashtrian police inspector (played by Vijay Maurya) those little variations in pronunciations and usages that separate their respective communities.

I loved the writing in those scenes primarily because it acknowledges the narcissism of small differences, while going ahead and making poetry out of it.

IMAGE: Vijay Varma and Alia Bhatt in a scene from Darlings.

The absence of 'convenient casting decisions' is one more illustration of how well thought out every stroke in the movie is, with each actor being chosen for that personality trait most incandescent in him or her.

Take Shefali Shah, for instance -- she doesn't find a place in this universe simply because as an actress she is hot right now, or because she can on present form play the silent yet steely woman better than anybody in Indian Cinema.

When Shah as Shamshunissa asks her daughter to not give into abuse, she doesn't seem to be speaking like one those diktat-spewing feminists, but as a woman who has experienced the pits of a similar hell and come out of it alive, someone who has had to love and lose to realise the value of preserving one's dignity.

In a scene where Vijay Varma's Hamza berates her in public, Shamshunissa responds by flashing her public smile (it's actually rage coming out as smile), and you marvel at Shefali Shah's control over her craft, how she balances the mood-temperature of that scene with just that one expression.

Alia Bhatt is the star in the mix, required to display fresh feathers. She has been cast for her ability to cry wholesomely in front of the camera, something about which we are already aware of, and for her ability to be candidly mean, something which an audience only half-suspects was there.

IMAGE: Vijay Varma and Alia Bhatt in a scene from Darlings.

The script of Darlings called for an actor who could have swallowed Hamza whole, down to his upbringing and his personal rituals of hygiene, and then regurgitated the character for us bit by bit.

Notice how Vijay Varma brings alive the social class of this completely unpredictable individual in a scene of his describing the sound of women getting attracted to perfume-wearing men: "Zzzupppp," he intones, and in that moment, you get an idea of his highly developed misogyny; so developed that it's almost a style.

Varma, our very own chameleon on two feet, can be exquisitely theatrical even while being absolutely despicable, and here he switches between states within the same shot, and without so much as a change in his countenance.

Only Varma could have taken us close to understanding the special vexations of this Ticket Collector: A Hamza who has to get drunk to forget the constant rattling of train compartments and the stench of his boss' toilet, and who rationaliSes abuse by composing on the fly couplets that draw links between abuse and true love.

Only Vijay Varma could have made this character seem a demon of the most human sort, in that he seems to us irredeemably demonic.

And not just Hamza, this is a movie headlined by women and drenched in the notion of universal sisterhood, but filled with exceptionally well-written male characters.

The men in Darlings, their foibles as well as their art, are not templates but beautiful creations.

You can observe this facet in Kiran Karmarkar's Damle, Hamza's boss, who exhausts his sexual desires in talking about them, so that when the time comes to actually "do something," he behaves like quite the prude. It's a rambunctious performance by an underused talent.

Cast a sober eye on the police inspector that Vijay Maurya plays. Maurya's show of irritation deserves a separate fan club, and here, this irritation is at the service of a genuine beef that his character has with the female race: "You ladies put up with domestic violence, and thus it ferments."

IMAGE: A scene from Darlings.

In a movie like this one, the flesh-and-blood personages have to be counterbalanced by imaginatively mounted ones -- and so we get Rajesh Sharma's Kasim Kasai, who should go down as one of Hindi Cinema's most memorable plot-devices. Kasim the butcher speaks not more than five lines in the whole film, but carries within him chapters and chapters of unspeakable truths.

Rajesh Sharma's silence is matched by Roshan Mathew's mutterings and bursty speeches, and Mathew's naturally sincere face makes him the ideal candidate to play Zulfi, the pawn in the mother-daughter chess-game. This pawn too is doomed to have the shortest stride, and doomed to be thrust in at various points to save the queen from embarrassment.

The actors may have been given the freedom to discover their characters, but Darlings is very much a triumph of the good old "bound screenplay" tradition.

IMAGE: Shefali and Alia in Darlings.

Jasmeet Reen and Parveez Sheikh have worked and reworked the script till each bit fits, each pattern in the film responds to the others, and each minor detail has been put in place. I particularly loved how, in a sequence which shows Hamza locked up in a temporary prison, a Nigerian can be seen crouching in a corner.

It would be a tragedy to club Darlings with those typical "female-centric" movies that expect automatic applause for their intentions.

In works like The Great Indian Kitchen, I see no real defiance, just an attempt to please the liberal pieties of our age. Jasmeet Reen's work, on the other hand, is one of artistic defiance. But this defiance will become evident to you only if you're willing to keep your ideological positions in abeyance -- something that the first and last scene of the film, taken together, kind of demonstrates.

Darlings opens with Alia Bhatt's Badru heading for a movie date, being stood up by her lover, and missing the screening. By the end, the opening images have been turned inside out: Badru ditches her lover, and catches a movie alone. Sometimes you have to give up on that which is dearest to you, to truly appreciate the show.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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SREEHARI NAIR / Rediff.com