Darlings, safes, good lucks, thanks you, respects chahiye… The plurals that those new to the language innocently add thinking it’s damn cool, is frequently and wittily sneaked into the conversation between Senior Ticket Collector Hamza (Vijay Varma) and wife Badrunissa, shortened to a cute Badru (Alia Bhatt).
The trailer lingered on the frog and scorpion folk tale where the scorpion promises not to but ends up stinging the frog who’s ferrying it across the water. ‘It’s my fitrat, my nature,” explains the scorpion even if it means drowning along with the frog.
Director Jasmeet K Reen who writes the screenplay along with Parveez Shaikh, takes the frog-scorpion analogy and transplants it into the Badru-Hamza marriage. After an annoying day at work where there’s camaraderie but TC also stands for Toilet Cleaner according to boss Damle (Kiran Karmakar), Hamza sits down with a drink and tucks into the food lovingly prepared by Badru when clunk, he bites into a stone. It seems to be a speciality in Badru’s cooking as clunk, here comes another.
When exasperation is topped with a sprinkling of frustration, the mohalla (neighbourhood) hears what it’s used to – Badru’s screams as physical abuse reigns in the love marriage. Apologies follow the next morning, as abusive husbands are wont to do, with a promise never to get violent again. It’s a pattern that Badru’s mother Shamshunissa Ansari (Shefali Shah) catches on to, goading the abused to take drastic measures. Hers is a Lord Krishna-like philosophy of fight fire with fire.
But, like most wives who live on hope, Badru tells her mother, “He loves me. Unlike dad who didn’t love you and left you.”
There’s anguish as Shamshu has her own untold story. And she does have a story which takes its own time to unfold. Do scorpions like Hamza ever change when abusing a woman is their fitrat?
Categorised as a black comedy, Jasmeet attempts a light touch around a dark reality.
Some humour lands: the mother-daughter duo conning well-wisher Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), silent shots with exaggerated facial gestures between Shamsu and Badru, the boss turning up to find out where Hamza has vanished or the banter between cops at the police station. On the other hand, there’s little wit in scenes like Shamshu’s monologue about killing Hamza, filling up a suitcase with his body and feeding him to tigers or in her other options for getting rid of him.
But there’s no escape from the pivot as there’s constant dread around the corner over an impending bout of abuse like Hamza spotting Badru’s red heels and what he does to her with it, the scooter ride he takes with Zulfi and his return home seething with the thought of ‘whose-child-is Badru-carrying?’
“Why do men turn into monsters?” asks Shamshu at the cop station where Badru once again believes Hamza will turn over a new leaf.
“Because women let them,” says Senior Inspector Tawde (Vijay Maurya who also contributes to the dialogues in the film). Women are to blame for taking it, nothing stoic about it.
There are a few cliché moments in the narration. Like the change in the walk and the chin up to show a determined transformation in Badru. Or swatting a pesky insect on her neck to show that she’s done with the stinging, she’s ready to squash it out of existence. Or the overuse of a background song for a series of scenes to establish life after a baby’s arrival is announced and Shamshu’s Kitchen, a business that mom, daughter and Zulfi launch.
But above all is the unequivocal message of domestic violence – don’t take it. At the end, when Badru watches a movie, there’s a static on the screen that reads: Abuse of women can be injurious to health.
Indeed, it’s time for that warning to go out and Darlings does it with clear-headed precision.
Also, Jasmeet handles the mohalla tales with ease. A spray of characters like Kasim the butcher (Rajesh Sharma who requires no dialogues to be impactful), make small but pertinent contribution to the lives of Badru and Shamshu. The inclusion of a builder taking over their homes for redevelopment makes it seem like an everyday neighbourhood. Thankfully, in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy style, there’s no overt religiosity in the characters and the setting. The faith is neither in your face nor relevant nor phobic about any other religion. The names could change, the situation would be the same.
It’s a boon that there’s an OTT platform for strong content which can be told without commercial constraints. A splendid cast led by Alia Bhatt, Vijay Varma (who also excelled in the series She), Shefali Shah and Roshan Mathew with Indian cinema’s reliable pillars of support, Rajesh Sharma, Kiran Karmarkar and Vijay Maurya, tells the story of Badru, Shamshu and Hamza by performing with conviction and not be fraught with worry over the saleability of its artistes. A big thumbs up this time to Netflix and to Team Darlings.
Watch Darlings Trailer: