“Darlings” starts with the disclaimer that violence against women is very real and that the film doesn’t endorse it in any shape or form. The first teaser features a disclaimer that violence against women can be very injurious to one’s health. The trailer indicates that Alia Bhatt is married to an abusive Vijay Varma. So, with the help of her mother, she’s going to exact revenge on her husband. Now, based on all that information, you can expect it to go one of two ways. The all-guns-blazing, no-holds-barred, pedal-to-the-metal route like the “Kill Bill” duology, “Revenge,” and “The Quick and the Dead.” Or the one with a rousing message about equality paved by “On the Basis of Sex” and “Suffragette.” But, “Darlings” tries to do a little of both of those things and ends up being a whole lot of nothing.
Directed and co-written by Jasmeet K. Reen, along with co-writers and dialogue writers Parveez Sheikh and Vijay Maurya, “Darlings” starts off with the long-running love story of Badru (Alia Bhatt) and Hamza (Vijay Varma). The narrative jumps forward by three years to show that Badru and Hamza have married each other and are living together. They look happy (in the traditional, misogynistic way) with Badru serving Hamza his dinner while asking if he’s listening to anything that she’s saying. Things take a horrific turn, though, as pieces of stone (that’s usually present in rice) disturb Hamza’s eating experience, and he gets violent with Badru. The following day reveals that this kind of abuse is quite normal in their relationship. Her neighbors turn a blind eye to it, while her mother (Shefali Shah) and her friend Zulfi (Roshan Mathew) urge her to divorce Hamza. After a particularly devastating incident, Badru decides to take matters into her own hands.
The movie’s confusion about what it wants to be is evident from its portrayal of violence and the eventual reaction to it. On several occasions, Reen (with the help of editor Nitin Baid) cuts away from the moments Hamza beats up Badru. Instead, we just hear Badru screaming, and our imagination does the rest of the heavy-lifting. So, it seems like Reen has made this directorial decision to not be explicit about its portrayal of violence, and she’ll only imply what’s going on. That’s exactly when you see incredibly explicit scenes of violence, with the moment that I’ve discussed as a “devastating incident” bordering on a full-on action set piece. But those are not the most bizarre aspects of the commentary on violence in “Darlings.” That comes in a scene with Zulfi, who is selling a mixer to Badru’s mom. And Badru uses her bruises from her beating to garner sympathy and bring down the price of the mixer.
Please feel free to let that sink in before reading any further. To be clear, in a well-balanced, dark comedy, all the aforementioned beats would’ve gelled with one another. It’s the non-commitment to either end of the tonal spectrum that results in this jarring viewing experience. This non-committal attitude sticks out the most in the movie’s portrayal of women and their uneven relationship with men. For the most part, it seems like “Darlings” is adamant about saying that “all men are trash,” which is a very common way of insulting patriarchy and calling out men for upholding it. However, with the inclusion of Zulfi and Kasim Kasai (Rajesh Sharma), the movie walks back on that statement, as if to say, “well, not all men are trash.” There’s a whole speech about women being self-sustainable and whatnot. And then, in the concluding moments, Badru and her mother indicate that women do need a “nice” man in their lives. Why? What’s the point?
As mentioned earlier, “Darlings” partially goes the hard way of giving the abusive husband the same kind of torture he deals out to his wife. Then it tracks back to saying that “if you abuse the abuser, then you become the abuser too,” before doing the whole “not all men” nonsense. Which, like everything else about the ethos and tonality of the movie, is bizarre. Violence by the oppressor and violence against the oppressor are not the same thing. Especially when it comes to exploitation films. You don’t become the abuser if you abuse the abused. You become the liberator. You become the abuser when you use the violence that you’ve faced on someone who is more oppressed than you are. Does that make sense? Yes, dealing with the mental weight of being violent is a different conversation altogether. But since the movie spends so little time on either of these topics, it comes off as performative shlock.
Talking about the oppressed and the oppressor, the most irksome thing about “Darlings” is its choice to base the plot around the Muslim community and not have a single Muslim actor inhabit these roles. As if we don’t have enough mainstream Indian movies that portray the Muslim community as violent, abusive, and dangerous. That too in a communal and bigoted India where the mainstream news convinces the majority Hindu community to see them as such. Maybe the casting department didn’t get a Muslim actor to play these roles because those actors didn’t want to further the stereotyping of their community. But then again, it’s co-produced by Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri Khan’s Red Chillies and is co-written by Parveez Sheikh. Yes, abusers exist in every community. However, it feels like only one community is always made to face the “music” or subjected to caricature, while the majority gets to gloat and justify their ill feelings, even though their history is full of abuse and torture.
Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma, Roshan Mathew, Kiran Karmarkar, and Rajesh Sharma are a talented bunch. But none of them are doing anything that you haven’t seen them do before. It’s like they are sleepwalking through this movie. The fact that they look so disinterested has everything to do with the lack of craft in the movie. There’s one interesting shot in the entire film where cinematographer Anil Mehta uses stairs as a metaphor for tragedy and the death of humanity. That’s paralleled later on in the movie. But halfway through that scene, Reen thinks that she has to spoon-feed the audience that she is drawing a cinematic parallel here. Or else the audience may just miss it and not truly comprehend this epitome of visual storytelling. The songs by Vishal Bhardwaj and Mellow D are fine. The production design by Garima Mathur is passable. And all of this comes together in the most boring way possible and makes for an unengaging viewing experience.
So, is “Darlings” worth a watch? No. Even if it was a watery, bland, middling attempt at being an exploitation film (which, FYI, it clearly wants to be), I would’ve recommended it. But this movie is so hellbent on furthering negative stereotypes that it simply can’t be recommended. And the worst part is that it is so insecure about the whole affair. As explained before, exploitation films go all the way with a stereotype and turn it into an emblem of liberation and power. However, the utter lack of confidence in the filmmaking and storytelling means that it’s unsure about the substance it is commenting on. If you want to say “all men are trash,” then say so with your full chest. If you want to say that women need to stand up for themselves, then say it with conviction. If you want to get violent and examine its implications, do that. Don’t beat around the bush and waste anyone’s time.