Darlings is a well-rounded effort by Jasmeet K Reen, supported by bold ideas and clever imagery, raves Sukanya Verma.
Badrunissa Shaikh is a victim. Of superstitions, of abuse, of herself.
She’ll sigh after almost stepping on a lemon chilli totka lying on the road, throw salt over her shoulder on spilling some in the kitchen and count bird poop as good luck.
But her belief in dumb luck proves just as pointless as her belief that her husband Hamza (Vijay Varma) will turn a new leaf one day.
Hamza’s drunken drubbing of his wife is a classic case of chronic violence beleaguering umpteen Indian homes.
Like the ‘bichhoo’ in the Scorpion and the Frog fable Badrunissa’s mom cautions her about, he cannot help it -- it’s in his nature to sting.
In the words of Gulzar, La-ilaaj.
More than the scorpion’s toxic traits, Darlings, directed by Jasmeet K Reen, is invested in the story of the frog’s emancipation personified in Badrunissa aka Badru (Alia Bhatt) as submissiveness makes way for sweet retaliation.
Despite its crystal clear stand on toxic masculinity, Darlings lets the story take its own course without any judgement on a person or community.
A Byculla chawl occupied by lower middle-class folks, predominantly Muslims, pinning their hopes on redevelopment schemes to shift their fortunes forms the backdrop against which Badru builds castles in the air.
Colourful post-its of yearly goals -- babies, big home, big car -- adorn a little corner of her matchbox-sized four walls.
It’s a curious touch evoking the enthusiasm of a young executive in her cubicle preferring drudgery at the hands of Hamza over life of a corporate slave.
Conditioning cannot be blamed for her lack of aspiration.
Badru was raised by her strong, single mother Shamshunissa (Shefali Shah) running a dabba service just a stone’s throw from her daughter’s dingy dwelling when not enjoying the attention of the neighbourhood jack-of-all-trades Zulfi (Roshan Mathew, getting under the Byculla boy skin seamlessly).
Domestic violence doesn’t shock Shamshunissa.
Still when a push comes to shove, she will not take it lying down like Badru’s neighbours -- silent spectators of what society deems as miya-biwi ka jhagda.
Although spared gruesome visuals of brutality towards Badru, the normalcy following the violence is even more unsettling.
Denial is a dangerous state to be in and our girl is completely in its grip.
What I appreciated about Reen’s direction and co-writing alongside Parveez Shaikh is that Darlings does not patronise Badru’s blind surrender to patriarchy and grants her enough breathing space to realise the vicious cycle she’s trapped in.
The psyche of a sufferer is as heart-breaking as it is convoluted and Darlings renders it due respect.
No wonder when her mum laments, 'Twitterwalon ke liye duniya badalti hai humare liye nahi,' it strikes a false note.
It’s a good line but doesn’t sound authentic coming from a woman silly enough to believe cops (a terrific Vijay Maurya sharing dialogue credit with Reen and Shaikh) will put her daughter behind bars for wishing her husband dead.
Darlings gets inside the mind of Badru’s persecutor too.
One gets a sense of Hamza’s workplace frustrations at the hands of a callous boss (a pitch-perfect Kiran Karmakar), the domino effect of abusive behaviour or the alcoholism it prompts. Yet, the beast is entirely of his own making.
And the film never once forgets that.
That’s what makes Vijay Varma’s performance, oscillating between demon and D’Mello (Kundan Shah fans will know) such an extraordinary feat.
It’s frightening how brilliant his depth of deception is, especially when he almost convinces us to see in him what Badru does too.
Often I was reminded of Amol Palekar in Varma’s versatility to switch between shamefaced and sinister.
Shot in pink-tinged, pleasant hues and then darker tones for its nocturnal moments by the perceptive Anil Mehta, Darlings resembles a bitter pill in a sugar-coated body where Stephen King’s brand of dreams and nightmares collide, triggering The Shining reminiscent menace in Hamza as well as Misery’s hostile tendencies within Badru.
Just when you think you know where its 'sab mard ko line mein rakh ke goli maar deni chhaiye' line of thought is headed, Reen and Shaikh surprise with a wild shift in tone.
Abuse and absurd don’t mix but Darlings pulls it off by asserting humour as the other side of pain.
Joker’s wisdom in The Dark Knight -- I used to think my life was a tragedy but now I realise it's a comedy -- becomes its entire mood fuelling Badru’s motives and Reen’s movie.
Darlings loses some of its gravitas in playing out the screwy gags.
A little above two hours, there’s a marked dip in the pace over needless exposition and monotonous comedy of errors.
The makers don’t entirely think through the practicality of Badru’s plans, which is fine because her self-doubts only make her fallible and believable.
What’s a tad forced and grating though is the pedestrian touch in the lingo by adding ‘s’ as a suffix after every second English word -- bad lucks/sads/respects, you get the drift.
Never mind the hiccups, Darlings never stops fascinating.
The beauty of Alia Bhatt’s performance is on full display in the intense, dramatic scenes where she just devastates the screen with her anger and tears as well as the little details of her humiliated body language preparing omelette pav for her brute half.
Alia knows exactly when to play the star and when to become a character in a story and Darlings, which is her first as producer, benefits hugely from her shape-shifting skills.
She could not have asked for a better on-screen mother than Shefali Shah.
Ever so razor sharp and sassy, Shah injects Shamshunissa’s hardboiled disposition with deliciously wicked impulses.
Scenes just flow between Alia, Shah and Varma giving the viewer a fly-on-the-wall intimate feeling.
Though it fumbles on a few occasions, Darlings is a well-rounded effort by Jasmeet K Reen, supported by bold ideas and clever imagery.
The movie titles (both belonging to co-producer Red Chillies) playing in a theatre Badru visits in the first and final scene, smartly reiterate the value of Zero over the power of Badla in the hope that no frog needs to bear any scorpion’s burden.
Darlings streams on Netflix.