By all accounts, writer-director Jasmeet K. Reen‘s directorial debut is one of Hindi cinema’s rare grace for 2022. Co-writing with Parveez Sheikh, the director packs in a scintillating wallop as they explore the crack and tissue-injuring reality of domestic violence within the seemingly carceral walls of a chawl. As it usually does, the marital vows are preceded by wooing and persistent strewing of dreamlets: here, amidst the obtruding and obtrusive crowded footpaths of Mumbai. And thus are Badrunissa, aka Badru (Alia Bhatt), and Hamza (Vijay Varma) betrothed. As the movie cuts forward, the cloud of violence hangs low and in a predictable cumulus in the couple’s home. Those plumes and the external visage of injuries don’t escape Badru’s mother, Shamshu (Shefali Shah), who lives across the floor in the same tenement.
Like most victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, Badru and Hamza engage in a repetitious ballet of vicious twirls and swirls, each performance ending with a smack and a thwack. And yet, the morning after, Hamza comes up all contrite and mortified, and Badru can’t even play hard to get. For her, each day is a ray of hope; that the change in the calendar page will somehow erase or correct the effects of patriarchy, some faulty gene combined with heady alcohol, and yield an almanac of bliss. No transgression, welt, or bloody nose is damper enough. Until, of course, the scales fall down the chawl’s steps. Which is the only plot hole in the movie. How does a character in the movie land up in the hospital with all the others in their lives clueless? Especially when every sound transmits itself as an amplified advertisement of reverberating misery in the chawl’s claustrophobic confines?
Combining the crackle of dark humor, snappy repartees, and sharp perspectives (Vijay Maurya, playing sympathetic cop Rajaram Tawde, pitching in with the dialogue writing) with a snazzy background score by Prashanth Pillai, the movie lands its punches even as it strings up the tension to heighten its focus on the hidden-in-plain-sight societal blot. In this universe of forever hope and never-say-never-to-love also reside the taciturn butcher Kasim (Rajesh Sharma, as effective as the sharp ones he wields) and a fluttering heart of sympathy and mysterious desire Zulfi (Roshan Mathew, quite simply, likable in a role that floats like a fairy tale). There’s Tawde’s assistant cop Janardhan Jadhav, played by Santosh Juvekar with a timing loaded with suspicion and sly give-aways. There’s also a worryingly corpulent Kiran Karmarkar in a superb cameo.
And in the trio of Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, and Vijay Varma does Darlings’ triumph reside. If Bhatt resonates with a heart-breaking and stunning vacillation between anger and hope, revenge and sympathy, vulnerability and steely strength, doing the right thing and wronging a wrong, Shah is arrow-like in her performance. She’s superbly over the top yet protective, as all mothers are; she calls a spade a spade and won’t hesitate to seize one to bury secrets when the time comes. And Vijay Varma is a sparkler. His slant eyes carry the manipulative, self-victim-card-conviction of an addict to booze and violence that frustrations at work are to be flushed down with both explosive ingredients at home. Every entry he makes inside the house freezes you, and like Shamshu, you want to scream out to Badru to finish it all, once and final. If only life in a metro was as simple as watching a movie in the Metro cinema hall.
Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Darlings is streaming on Netflix and rated U/A ((Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for some language and liver-straining booze usage.
Director Jasmeet K. Reen Time 2h 2min
Writers Harshad, Shafu, Suhas
Stars Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma
Genres Comedy, Drama, Thriller