Story: Badru’s (Alia Bhatt) unconditional love for her husband Hamza, (Vijay Varma) makes her overlook all the red flags in their relationship. Her mother’s (Shefali Shah) constant warnings go unnoticed as well. Coming from a modest background, the young wife continues to hope for a better tomorrow until things get a bit too far.

Review: “If you can go to a restaurant or cinema alone, you can do anything in life.” Women, however, are conditioned to believe that they would rather be in a volatile, toxic relationship than be the object of society’s prying eyes. Strangely, being in an abusive marriage is still more respectable than being in none. Debutante director Jasmeet K Reen, who has co-written this film along with Parveez Sheikh takes a closer look at patriarchy and domestic violence (DV) amid the social-psychological milieu of the lower middle class. Set in Mumbai, where the rich and not so privileged co-exist and resilience rides high, two women – mother and daughter, find their own heaven in hell. They find ways to bring their own sunshine even as dark clouds hover around them. They laugh in the face of adversity and make merry with whatever little they have.

Even as Hamza habitually beats up Badru black and blue in a drunken state or driven by uncalled-for rage, she devotedly makes an omelette for him the next morning. He apologises to his ‘darlings’ and she happily forgives him… the cycle continues. She reminds herself that theirs is a love marriage after all and these arguments and such abuse must be common across. However, a tragic incident forces her to recalibrate her life decisions and her views on her manipulative husband. Violence begets violence but can revenge set you free? Who’s the real victim here — the one who fights back using questionable methods or the one who normalises abuse in the name of love?

Contrary to the trailer, Darlings isn’t quite a dark comedy or a twisted suspenseful thriller. Told in a linear, simplistic fashion, the film is about an abuser exploiting his partner over a man versus woman battle. While the subject at hand and observations are powerful, the storytelling and editing needed some work. Shot in a confined space throughout (a rather spacious chawl room), the film keeps going in circles, making it more of a monotonous drama than a gripping domestic noir. The climax feels morally conflicted and leaves room for thought. The irony of a beauty parlour lady drawing a mehendi on a blushing bride, while being privy to an abusive marriage next door or a handcuffed Hamza being asked to peel veggies by a suddenly hardened wife… and more such nuances are finely captured.

Darlings makes a compelling case study on domestic violence but it wouldn’t be what it is, if it wasn’t for Shefali and Alia. Both actresses speak through their eyes and make up for the dreary pace at times with their outstanding performances and chemistry. The camaraderie between the mother and daughter sets the tone of this film — whether its heart-wrenching, emotional scenes – or tougher scenes made light with subtle humour. They slip into the skin of their character effortlessly, feed off each other’s energy as actors and take you along with their story. Despite being let down by the men in their lives, they choose to not look at themselves as victims and that is the highlight of this daring domestic drama that sheds light on the male privilege, physical-emotional abuse and intimidation. There are several reasons to watch this film, but Shefali and Alia’s brilliant performances top the list.



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