Gully Boy’s Moeen bhai (Vijay Varma) and Safeena (Alia Bhatt) are Darlings’ Hamza and Badru. They inhabit a similar world. But their stories couldn’t have been more different.
Badru and Hamza seem to be a rather loved-up couple. But the parlourwali downstairs knows their dark truth. Hamza, the loving husband, has a violent streak. And it is not just the furniture and the utensils that he unleashes his wrath upon. Most of the time, it is his wife of three years, Badru, who bears the brunt. While she gets new bruises on her face every day, her mother, who had raised her single-handedly and lives in the same chawl, gets those on her soul. But Badru is too much in love with her man to break free. And the kitchen-sink drama replete with torture, trauma, and tyranny continues… Until she loses her unborn child. Love finally breeds rage. What happens next?
What happens is an opportunity to make a taut revenge thriller lost amid a muddled attempt at a black comedy. It sets you up for a Beatrix ‘The Bride’ Kiddo but serves you a fuming and fumbling Jerry trying to punish Tom. It is a movie that starts in a gritty and ultra-violent Titliesque world and randomly enters the zone of a Hera Pheri. The tonal shift is abrupt, jarring, and unnecessary.
There is something inherently problematic when you treat violence as funny; more so when you have not built up that world of willing suspension of disbelief. Only by putting quirky facial expressions of characters while they perpetrate similar, if not more gruesome, acts of violence against their tormentor, hardly makes the actions justifiable. Violence is not a relative term. Violence is not ‘cute’.
What cuts the cord of empathy the audience initially feels for Badru further is the preposterousness of the premise– Badru had no pressing need to become this violent person. She had multiple opportunities to seek help from the police who were more than willing to get her out of the situation she was in, or she could have just stopped caring about the societal stigma and gotten a divorce. She had her mother supporting her at every step. She had options, but she chose violence.
The toxic conjugal relationship between Hamza and Badru might remind one of Jimmy and Allison’s in Look Back in Anger (you also have the soft toys playing an integral part here reminiscent of the bear-and squirrel game). But instead of building Hamza as the anti-hero, providing a backstory for his toxicity (it is refreshing to see that there is no attempt to justify his violence), here, he remains just an angry young man. Instead of becoming a complex, layered grey character, he is built like two-in-one ice cream instead of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hamza is a husband who becomes a monster when drunk and professes his undying love to his wife when sober in an attempt to manipulate her.
The character of Badru is also not satisfying. At times it feels as if the writers got a tad lazy while writing it and decided to use comic elements as an easy way out. Yes, coming from a broken home, one understands her initial reluctance to let go of the relationship, her need for a father figure, her obsession with trying to ‘fix’ Hamza, her hanging on to and rooting for the security of a ‘family’.
But, her character progression is abrupt, especially once she reaches her breaking point. It seems she just unceremoniously plonks all the burden of her trauma and PTSD outside the doorstep in a mad rush to enter a more comfortable world of quirky comedy.
Alia Bhatt gives another superlative performance as Badru, the naïve and doting wife who eventually finds her agency and decides to fight back. It is difficult for even the harshest of her critics to find any flaw in her performance. She becomes Badru effortlessly and lives and breathes the part.
Vijay Varma as Hamza is a strange mix of charm and menace. His transformation from the loving husband to the violent beast is seamless. Even when he just sits on the chair bound with ropes, he proves his mettle as an actor.
Probably the best-written character is that of Badru’s mother. Hers is the only satisfying character arc and Shefali Shah as the defiant, loving, and no-nonsense, conservative-yet-modern, Shamshunissa ‘Shamshu’ Ansari is all shades of brilliant. Like Pankaj Tripathi’s neck, Shah’s eyes can act better than most of our present-day actors and should have its own fan base.
It is the relationship between Badru and Shamsu that forms the real core of the movie, and Bhatt and Shah’s earnest performances make it impossible to not fall in love with this quirky mother-daughter duo (I just wish they had a different film).
This is Jasmeet K Reen’s, the writer of the 2019 film, Pati Patni Aur Woh, first feature-length as a director. She absolutely aces the first hour of the movie. There are delicious details in the lived-in world that Reen builds—be it the terrifying dread and foreboding that she creates with the clanking of a lunchbox against the staircase, or subtly pointing towards the irony of the situation by juxtaposing the deafening silence of the neighbors with the loud masjid announcements.
The dialogues, co-written by Vijay Maurya, Parveez Sheikh, and Reen are profound and poignant but not preachy. When the police inspector says: “Mard daaru peeke jallad ban jata hai, kyunki aurat usey banne deti hai,” it hits the bull’s eye. When Shamsu points out that the world has only changed for the people on Twitter and not for regular people like her, it is a moment for a reality check for the keyboard warriors. And when Hamza asks: “Agar pyar nehi karta to marta kyun?” you find yourself staring at the core of most such toxic relationships.
The cinematography, especially the noiristic use of Dutch angles to create tension, and the recurring use of frame-with-frame symbolizing the prison Badru is stuck in, deserves a special mention. But the best part comes post the end credits—a song that sees the collaboration of Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar and has the quirkiest of lyrics heard in recent times.
To sum it up, at 2h 13m, Darlings feels a bit too stretched. It is a film that has a sharp start but loses its momentum and sparkle midway trying too hard, and failing, to become a black comedy, a genre that Bollywood seems to be currently smitten with but might not have the guts to embrace in its truest form. There are good films and there are bad films, but more upsetting are the could-have-been-great films. Darlings starts off with so much promise that it is heartbreaking to watch its fall from grace. It is only Shamshu’s exposition scene post the climax that brings some satisfaction and semblance, but it is too little, too late.