Darlings, starring Alia Bhatt, Vijay Verma and Shefali Shah in titular roles is a black comedy that aims to shed a light on the gruesome and oftentimes unreported crime of domestic violence. Throughout its run time of two hours and fourteen minutes, it drives a central theme home. There cannot and should not be any justification for resorting to domestic violence.
Set in Mumbai’s Byculla area, the story of Darlings revolves around Badrunissa Sheikh (Bhatt) and her husband Hamza Sheikh (Verma). While the opening credits may fool you into thinking that Badru and Hamza are a lovey-dovey couple, Hamza seems to feel violence is also part of the everyday co-existence of a man and a woman living under a roof. The violence follows a pattern with the only variables being ‘what will it be that sends Hamza into a fit of rage today’ Badru, herself a victim of societal norms that surround the institution of marriage fervently believes she can change him. Despite repeated misgivings expressed by her mother Shamshu (Shah), she concocts a variety of well-intentioned schemes to help him kick the bottle, to which he attributes his animalistic behaviour to. Vijay Verma is in fine form as Hamza, the charming, conniving and controlling husband. He manages to exude a sense of genuine repentance by day and menace by night.
The first half allows us to become familiar with the surroundings, while also reminding us about the normalcy surrounding domestic violence. It is not unknown to anyone in the locality that Hamza is an abusive drunk, who regularly beats his loving wife. From the local butcher to the beautician, there are numerous people who sympathise with Badru, but grimly accept the status quo. The only anomaly in this setting comes in the form of Badru’s single mother. Shah is predictably brilliant, a breadth of fresh air as the only character who refuses to accept Badru’s circumstances as a foregone conclusion. She encourages Badru to leave her marital home and come live with her. She frequently comes up with less than lawful ideas to protect her daughter from the trauma that comes with being regularly assaulted. Badru, intent on making her marriage work, rejects her mother’s outlandish ideas without exception. It is only towards the end of the first half, after reeling from an unexpected loss, does she decide to avenge herself. This particular sequence captures the essence of the idiom, ‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’ with expertise and skill.
The latter half of the film assumes the tonality of a black comedy, conspicuously missing in the first half. This is when the plot unravels, director Jasmeet K Reen and writer Parvez Sheikh lose their firm grip on the screenplay. The plot struggles to maintain the balance between outlandish and plausible. In a hare-brained scheme to seek revenge, the mother-daughter duo rope in Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), an aspiring writer, into their plot. Just as it appears to the viewers that the plot has derailed, we are surprised with a twist that we did not see coming.
Darlings is, ultimately, a well-intentioned take on the horrors of domestic violence, propelled forward by the fantastic cast. It mercifully steers clear of providing any justification for unacceptable behaviour as most Hindi films are wont to do, without being preachy or resorting to moral smugness.