Darlings filmed, co-written and directed by Jasmeet K. Reen is a must watch for avid cinephiles. In this 133 minute dark comedy, Reen approaches some hard hitting realities that many women face in a contemporary setting, offering us a new perspective, a comedic spin to a tragic reality. Yet, not for one moment does this minimise the seriousness of the film's overarching message : Women's right to be and feel protected, respected and be free as individuals.
The night starts off quietly. Hamza (Vijay Virma) has returned from a hard day's work and his dutiful wife Badru (Alia Bhatt) is serving him dinner whilst discussing the renovation project in their neighbourhood… nothing out of the ordinary. Hamza begins eating. Crunch… one stone. Crunch… two stones. Crunch… and three is the limit.
What follows is the sound of Badru’s tortured screams which resonate to the salon below. The two ladies briefly pause, give each other a strained look and then, acting as if nothing happened, the salon owner resumes putting on Henna. It’s a nightly routine, and everyone in Badruh’s neighbourhood seems to know. Whether it is a handprint on her face or neck, a bruised eye and a mangled figure - nobody is willing to intervene. They all just quietly accept her fate. After all, Hamza is Hamza. As little as stones in his rice can set him off. But, ‘it’s just the alcohol’. After sobering up he’ll return back to being the sweet affectionate boy that Badru fell for and sheepishly make amends.
And hopeful, naive Badru falls for it every time but not Shamsu (Shefali Shah), a single mother who raised Bardu alone after her dad mysteriously disappeared years ago. She sees right through Hamza’s sweet words and empty promises, and even urges her idealistic daughter to leave him. She knows all too well. Even after a boy from their neighbourhood Zulfi (Roshan Mathew) makes a police complaint, an easily persuaded Badru does everything to protect her marriage. She’s not the same as her mum and Hamza is not like her dad. So, once again, she backs off. Her only hope is that Hamza will stop his alcohol habit and they can start a family and live happily together. But in Shamsu’s words it’s in Hamza’s nature to be a scorpion. For a while Hamza seems resolved to change and curb his alcoholism.
Yet it’s too good to be true - a scorpion cannot change. It’s only a matter of time until the same tortured screams are heard through the neighbourhood and this time it’s more than Badru can bear. She experiences a misscarriage. She finally draws the line. No longer the bubbly, innocent girl next door tiptoeing around her boyfriend - making extended plans of marriage, children etc, she is a woman with a mission. Finally taking control over her own fate and this time the roles are reversed.
The outrageous mother daughter duo are a delight to watch. Their comedic exchanges and charming smiles lighten even some of the darkest moments of the film. In cahoots, with their reluctant neighbour Zulfi, they plan to bring Hamza down. Their methods are unorthodox and very illegal : kidnapping Hamza in his own home, tying him up, beating him with saucepans and even medicating him, nonetheless it’s satisfying to watch Hamza get a taste of his own medicine. It’s a form of self justice. After years of suffering silently, Badru inflicts the same pain onto Hamza that she underwent and as the spectator we are totally fighting her corner. Reen makes it impossible to do otherwise. The film is enlightening. It uses humour to discuss domestic abuse which seems incongruous, absurd even. Yet, Reen somehow pulls it off. As a viewer, we are educated yet entertained by Badru and Shamsu, two determined women who decide to take charge instead of passively suffering from social injustices.
Reen perfectly illustrates this role reversal in the heel scene. Badru dresses up in a bold red dress, red lipstick to match… and armed with her weapon of choice, the painfully familiar red heels Hamza mangled her finger with. It’s an eye for an eye and one mangled finger for another. She forces him to sign the development contract and through this entire exchange we feel Badru’s rage, her disappointment and frustration. Bhatt does an amazing job at conveying these emotions. She builds this sense of tension in the viewer and leaves our heart aching for Badru’s loss. There is no empathy for Hamza,even as a ‘victim’. He is the abuser, the wrongdoer, the sinner. In another scene, the mother and daughter are playing a game of Carrom with a bound up Hamza whilst trying to figure out what to do with him.Kill him ? Medicate him ? It’s an absurd situation, but with this duo nothing is out of the question.
Reen conceptualises bizarre, quirky and loveable characters. They are relatable, full of life, funny, kind and lovable but their circumstances change them. It’s not until Badru realises that she doesn’t need Hamza’s love that her fierce, playful side is revived. The film ends with Badru watching a film in the cinema alone but perfectly content as she is able to enjoy her new found freedom.
Reens film ends on a lighthearted note but oftentimes the reality can be much bleaker. Studies show that between 2001 and 2018 cases of domestic violence in India have risen by 53% . The groups of women particularly affected by this form of violence generally tend to come from low income households. That being said, in showcasing Bardu’s story Reen tries to break down barriers for women. There is hope for a promising, better future. In an interview with the Telegraph, Reen stated ‘ A film should say something, and the intention is to start a conversation. That’s what a film can do, and I am so happy that we are successful in starting a conversation and that everyone is talking about it, which is the most important thing’.
It is possible to break the chain of abuse. We need to stop making excuses or turning a blind eye against these forms of injustices. It’s a social responsibility. It is our responsibility.
Edited by Carlos Martinez
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