Darlings, a Comic Twist To a Serious Issue
Marital violence is a serious issue across the world. The media either tries to twist beyond shape, or maintains an explosive silence on it.
Perhaps the scariest example of films on marital violence is Jag Mundra's Provoked (2006). The film was based on the real-life story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi woman, who was abused by her husband for 10 years. After killing her husband in self-defence, Ahluwalia was imprisoned and fought one court battle after another, helped by a women's organisation in the United Kingdom, which stood behind her till she was set free many years later.
A decade before that, Partho Ghosh's Agni Sakshi (1996) dealt with a sadistic husband who leaves no stone unturned to torture his wife. The husband is an obsessive lover who will not let go of his wife even if this means killing her if she tries to escape.
Within their marriage, he terrorises her with his manic suspicions, fetishes, emotional and physical abuse, and rape. In this scenario, the 'Angry Young Man' image popularised by Amitabh Bachchan has been neatly turned on its head.
In the sense that while the 'Angry Young Man's' shades of grey were 'justified' by severe wrongs done unto him by the villain, an obsessive lover-cum-husband needs no rationale for his cruelty cushioned generously with the term "darlings" while addressing his tortured wife.
All this is a fine game for husbands like Hamza (Vijay Varma). Their cruel treatment of their wives has the social sanction, and the legal legitimacy of marriage.
There is a third angle to this story that comes across through tiny touches of black comedy and satire. Darlings directed by Jasmeet K. Reen has a screenplay co-written with Parveez Sheikh, that brings to the fore, a new twist to the 'maar-khao-aur-saho-tum-to-biwI-ho (suffer a beating, don't complain, for you are a wife)' philosophy. It turns the tables, with diabolic intent, on the violence-prone-sweet-talking husband.
Hamza is a ticket checker in the railways who pretends to hold an 'important' job. But he is actually reduced to nothing when his boss commands him to clean the toilet, and the lunch table every other day.
Hamza is married to Badru or Badrunissa (Alia Bhatt), a pretty young girl in love with him. She toils under a mountain of housework everyday, but is content with her life as a housewife. Badru and Hamza live in a flat within a chawl.
However, Hamza 'peppers' their relationship with spontaneous beatings, followed by his sweet talk misusing English words. He ends every sentence with "darlings", while Badru ends her sentences with "pleej".
Badru's mother Shamsu (Shefali Shah) is different. She is worried about her love-lorn daughter's future with this terrible man who turns coat every other minute like a magician. She should know. She had been a victim of domestic violence herself. Her husband either left her to bring Badru up alone, or she has probably bumped him off, a detail that remains clouded till the end.
But Badru is convinced that Hamza will change when they have a baby. According to her, a 'love marriage' can never go wrong. So, when she gets pregnant, she is sure that things between Hamza and her will be better, and he will 'change'.
This does not happen. In a spontaneous spurt of intended violence, Hamza shoves her down a flight of stairs. Badru now agrees with her mother that the only solution left is to bump Hamza off.
From this point on, Darlings takes a different turn. We now see an angry Badru diabolically planning to bump off Hamza. Yet she constantly vacillates between guilt and kindness for the husband she has lived with for long.
What Badru suffers from is called the Battered Wife Accommodation Syndrome. Here the battered wife begins to believe that she must have done something to anger her husband to treat her so badly. Or, in some cases, the internalisation of the 'husband-is-boss' ideology is so deep and intense that the wife believes that he has the right to beat her up because he also loves her, doesn't he?
She actually gets trapped into disbelief or denial that the partner is actually abusive. She may actually begin to believe that if the abuser loves her, it is fine, and the husband will change if she does.
The mother- daughter relationship runs as a delightfully entertaining and spicy sub-plot. It sometimes merges with the main husband-wife plot. There are amusing scenes such as one at the police station where the mother-daughter duo go to complain and Hamza suddenly comes in, throwing menacing looks at this 'new' wife.
The real image of Hamza comes across in two small scenes. One when he urges his boss not to make him clean the toilet while he is a TC. The boss tells him TC means "Toilet Cleaner". Hamza remains quiet.
The other that brings across Hamza's terrible character is on a railway platform. Here the railway staff is trying to put a dead body together. Hamza quietly takes the dead man's mobile from the stretcher, and later, gifts it to his elated wife.
One of the most telling scenes in the film is when a heart-broken Badru is about to jump off a hospital window after learning about her miscarriage. She halts before jumping and asks herself, "why me? It is his fault, he needs to pay".
All this is brought across without a single dialogue, and only through Alia Bhatt's body language and facial expressions. This shows what a brilliant performer she is for any role in any film, and no questions asked.
Shamsu, the mother, is no ordinary woman either. She lives in the neighbouring chawl and keeps an eye on her harassed daughter. She runs a small-time food delivery business which becomes a big success.
A sub-plot which livens the dark scenario comes across in Shamsu's relationship with her business partner, the handsome Zulfi (Roshan Mathew). He dreams of becoming a successful writer for Bollywood films but ends up selling stolen goods. Though we are led to believe that he has the keen eye for Badru, it turns out that he actually loves Shamsu. The brilliant Shefali Shah seals this confession with a deep kiss, taking him more by shock than surprise.
This is clearly an actor's film. Each of them, irrespective of the size of their role, screen time or dialogue, has given incredibly realistic performances. The woman living below Badru and Hamza's flat, runs a beauty parlour. She comments on Badru's stupidity.
Shamsu buys old stolen goods from Zulfi before they partner in a rising business in home-delivered meals, a big hit with the local police staff. These are some of the light moments that liven up the dark subject instead of turning the film into a dark, depressing story.
The art direction raises questions about the apartment shared by the main couple. It appears more spacious and well-furnished than Shamsu's small room, and does not quite fit into a 'chawl type' as we know it.
The music is quite good and is paced well. Vijay Varma as Hamza is a scream. Darlings has been released on an OTT platform but one imagines it would have done well with a theatrical release as well.
Darlings, pleej pleej watch this cinema. They are wonderfuls.