What could possibly turn a feisty young woman with the power to wrap her man around her fingers into a docile wife who gets beaten every day? Love. And the delusional hope that a man can ‘change’ if you give him enough time… or a baby. At least it’s what Alia Bhatt’s character Badrunissa believes in the 2022 film ‘Darlings’, despite repeated advice from her beloved mother to dump her alcoholic wife-beating husband.
Directed by Jasmmet K Reen, ‘Darlings’ is a slow burn satire about domestic abuse and two women’s very different efforts to fight it. The writers make use of a popular fable to drive the theme of their plot – Badru’s mother tells her the cautionary tale about how a scorpion seeks a frog’s help to cross the river, then stings it mid-way, dooming both of them to their deaths. She even spells out the moral – an asshole never changes. Well, not in the same words.
Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt make a formidable mother-daughter duo, one’s the older-wiser woman who has seen it all, while Bhatt’s wide-eyed Badru is filled with a naivety of those who think ‘marriage can change men’. Their onscreen camaraderie and affection for each other shines through the story. Vijay Kumar is wickedly good as Badru’s husband Hamza, who tortures her in the night, then butters her up in the morning, blaming it all on alcohol. “If I didn’t love you, why would I hit you? If you didn’t love me, why would you endure it?” he says with a straight-face in one of the most infuriating dialogues in the movie while defending his despicable behavior. However, it’s hard not to tire of Bhatt’s character sooner than the evil Hamza for putting up with repeated abuse. The writers push their luck with the script, slipping in too many incidents, to a point that you might think the spineless Badru deserves what she gets. So when Alia Bhatt pours her heart into crying for a poignant scene, you feel more exasperated than emotional. It takes time for things to get more interesting than frustrating.
Set in a Mumbai chawl, where Hamza & Badru live in a suspiciously spacious flat (makes you wonder if the writer’s have ever seen lower middle class homes in Mumbai, or even middle-class ones for the matter), a lot of the plot unfolds indoors. The dialogue writers could’ve used extra research, instead of making the characters simply add an extra ‘s’ to every second English word they used while conversing. One can’t understand if it was a deliberate attempt to be funny, or just an earnest effort to portray those who didn’t study in English medium schools. Either way it doesn’t work, because those dialogues are neither funny nor authentic. Or should we say ” neither funny nor authentics”? (See? Not funny)
Save for the sake of a few climactic twists, the events in the story largely unfold chronologically, and the linear story-telling helps in keeping things simple and crisp. A small sub-plot about Hamza’s job and his shitty boss didn’t need the kind of screen space it gets, felt like the writers were trying to justify/explain his alcoholism and violent streak. Roshan Matthew has an amusing cameo as Zulfi, an aspiring writer and peddler of second-hand wares, who tries to help Badru and her mother in his capacity.
In the hands of a different set of actors, ‘Darlings’ would’ve perhaps descended into being a chaotic mess. In some parts, it’s a bumbling comedy of errors, in others it’s one among too many real stories of women who let themselves become unwitting victims of domestic abuse, with nothing but their own emotions binding them to their oppressors. A wittier script with a shorter runtime would’ve made this absolutely riveting, thankfully Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt make this slowburn satire worth a one-time watch.
It’s a 7/10 from me.