Alia Bhatt raises the bar

There’s a few things that’darlings‘, a film that foregrounds domestic violence, totally gets by, most notably the way it has created his couple – a husband who constantly hits his wife; and the wife who, in a congealed mixture of hope and despair, continues to believe that ek din woh badal jaayenge (one day he will change).

A serial bully doesn’t do it because they’re forced to; he does it because he likes it. It makes him feel like a big man in his own home after being unmanned everywhere else, especially at his workplace, where he’s treated like dirt. And a woman who ignores the beating and hides all evidence behind a smiling facade does so from a place of almost unreal resilience that most fellow sufferers recognize.

In that regard, Alia Bhatt and Vijay Varma are spot on, as the beautifully written Badru and Hamza, whose “love marriage” a few years later becomes a cyclical series of hits followed by apologies. And that’s the other crucial element that feels just right: in the light of day, when Hamza looks at Badru dutifully preparing his pao omlette breakfast, he’s overwhelmed. He tries to make amends, she fights back, he applies the charm that made her fall in love with him in the first place, she melts away. The pattern is difficult to break.

It’s a toxic world, but it’s theirs, and until we get caught up in the back-and-forth between them, the film keeps us glued. Bhatt’s quicksilver mood swings reveal her emotional temperature underneath: Very few actors working in Bollywood today have their ability to register moods without saying a word. And Varma is great: as a ticket collector at the foot of the pole in his office, slaving away under a jovial tyrant (karmakar), he doesn’t really have what he wanted, so he’ll make sure no one else can get what he gets you want. It’s all command and control and he never makes a mistake.

Watch the Darlings trailer here:

The other powerful act is from Shefali Shah. As Shamsu, mother of Badru, she is fully supportive of her daughter, but she is not just a doorstop. We see a woman do whatever it takes to keep her head above water, only passing mention of the hard drudgery she went through to single-handedly raise her daughter. She’s trying to make something of herself, and the parts between her and her serious, handsome accomplice (Rohan Mathew) as she begins to spread her wares as a house cook add a touch of amusement to the process. He’s very good too and you want to see more of them, an odd couple that makes you smile.

Until then it’s fine. After the break, the film begins to build on its black comedy aspect to lighten the “heavy” domestic violence theme. Between cooking “Mirchi ka salans” and spicy biryanis, mother and daughter invent clumsy ways of revenge. A persistent cop trying to be helpful (Maurya) shows up. But the gags don’t really land, the comic touches feel forced, and an artificial sequence or two get annoying in a film otherwise so self-aware of its characters and their motivations.

But the climax sequence, which has a satisfying weight, saves “Darlings” from derailing. With her debut production peppered with a string of excellent performances, Alia Bhatt has raised the bar for films with meaning, something a Bollywood lost in the woods can cope with.

Darling’s cast: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma, Roshan Mathew, Rajesh Gupta, Vijay Maurya, Kiran Karmakar
Favorite film director: Jasmeet K Reen
Darling’s film rating: 2.5 stars

Leave a Comment