“Darlings,” a movie about domestic violence, gets a few things right. The most striking is how it portrays the main couple: a husband who keeps beating his wife and a wife who keeps hoping that “one day she’ll be better” (one day he will change).
A man who beats his wife over and over again does it because he likes it, not because he has to. After feeling weak everywhere else, especially at work where he is treated like trash, he feels like a big guy at home. And a woman who keeps ignoring the abuse and covers up every sign of it with a smile shows almost unbelievable strength that most other victims can relate to.
Alia Bhatt and Vijay Varma are perfect in their roles as Badrunissa and Hamza Sheikh, whose “love marriage” turns into a cycle of beatings and apologies a few years later. And this is the second important part that seems right: Hamza is shocked to see Badru working hard to make his pao-omlette breakfast in the middle of the day. He tries to make up with her, but she turns away from him. Finally, he uses the charm that once made her fall in love with him, and she starts to soften. It’s hard to break the pattern.
The movie keeps us interested until we can’t stop watching how they talk to each other in their poisonous world. Few Bollywood actresses can read Bhatt’s moods without her saying a word, which shows how hot she is on the inside despite her quick mood changes. The best thing about Varma is that he doesn’t get what he wants. He works at the bottom of the totem pole as a ticket collector for a happy bully named Karmakar, so he makes sure that no one else gets what they want. He is in charge of everything, and he never makes a mistake.
The other powerful act is given by Shefali Shah. In her role as Shamshunissa aka Shamshu, Badru’s mother, she unconditionally supports her daughter, yet she is more than simply a doormat. We see a mother do whatever it takes to keep herself afloat, and the hard work of raising her child by herself is only mentioned in passing. The dialogues between her and her sincere, handsome partner (Rohan Mathew) while she advertises as a home cook are humorous. He is also very good, and the two of them make a funny odd couple, so you want to see more of them together.
Up until that point, everything is OK. Up until that point, everything is OK. They’re Muslim, and while they’re conscious of othering, they can handle it matter-of-factly, conversationally, and clearly. Muslim main characters share a chawl with other Muslim characters.
After the break, the movie starts to get its “black comedy” parts, which are meant to lighten up the “serious” topic of domestic violence. Between making “mirchi ka salans” and hot biryanis, mother and daughter come up with strange ways to get back at each other. A tough-talking police officer named Maurya shows up and tries to be of assistance. It can be tempting to make funny things out of sad things to keep people interested. This leads to tone confusion. Even though the movie is otherwise very aware of its characters and what drives them, the jokes don’t really land, the comedic touches feel forced, and a few of the fake scenes get annoying.
But “Darlings” doesn’t go off track because of its satisfyingly big ending. Alia Bhatt raised the bar for meaningful movies with her first film, which had a number of standout performances. This is something that even Bollywood’s lost-in-the-woods style can do.