'Darlings' review: Fumbles, falters, but doesn't lose sight of goal
Jasmeet K Reen's directorial debut Darlings arrived on Netflix on Friday. The dark comedy stars Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Roshan Mathew, and Vijay Varma. It is a story of revenge and retribution as it chronicles the life of Badrunnissa Shaikh (Bhatt) who exacts revenge on her abusive-alcoholic husband Hamza Shaikh (Varma). Does the film tackle the domestic violence issue sensitively? Here's our complete review.
Badru (Bhatt) and Shamshu (Shah) are mother and daughter who live in a chawl. Badru is married to Hamza (Varma) who works as a ticket collector at the railway station. Their love marriage goes south as Hamza turns alcoholic and abusive, and beats up his wife regularly. Eventually, with the help of her mother, Badru exacts revenge in an innovative style.
The palpable tension between Hamza and Badru seeps through the screen, especially the first time we see Hamza hit her. In a scene that reminded me of The Great Indian Kitchen, Badru will rather take her husband's spit, literally, than match his decibel levels. Her identity is stripped off and yet she prepares his favorite dishes every morning—a recurrent reality of endless Indian households.
It's telling how Badru's costumes undergo a transformation: she goes from wearing jeans to being clad in salvar-kameez permanently, and this is one of the first few things we notice about her. Hamza's control and dominance get reflected through his say on his wife's outfits.
The topic of domestic violence raises eyebrows but like numerous other concerns plaguing women's lives, it's discreetly swept under the rug. Something similar is seen in the film. Badru's situation is no news, to the extent that a shopkeeper's knee-jerk reaction is to give her Savlon when she walks into his pharmacy. It's a small scene but contextualizes her entire life.
Darlings fires up uncomfortable questions about female abuse, while simultaneously having an unforgiving stance toward the general public—the people who might not allow such abuse to unfold in their own homes, but simply sigh at others' spectacle and don't step up to stop it.
Though Darlings has been marketed as a dark comedy, laughs are few and far in between in this drama that brims with a menacing subject. It moves with a drab pace and consistently necessitates explosive sequences to snap it out of its snail-paced dreary. Darlings sets you up for consequential, volatile action but switches gears halfway through, undoing the build-up it erected minutes ago.
Vijay Varma plays a full-time pathological abuser and part-time ticket collector with utmost conviction, so much so that you know you will hate his character the first time you meet him. Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt make an eclectic duo that we deserve to witness more often together. Their camaraderie and female solidarity bolster and boost each frame. Unfortunately, Mathew doesn't get much meat.
Darlings is a rousing tale of feminism and will remind you of other female-centric narratives such as Mirch Masala or Lipstick Under My Burkha. It is an ambitious film, evidently so, and swerves between fatal tragedy and witty humor, though not always successfully. Nonetheless, it still remains arresting because although it's Badru's story, it might as well be anyone's story. Verdict: 3/5 stars.