'Darlings' movie review: Alia Bhatt lights up this dark comedy

In the movie, the intricacies of Chawl's life are emphasised; you get a sense of a hundred small hustles running parallel. The songs, too, are a banger, especially the wild and swooning ‘Pleaj!’.
A still from the trailer. (Photo | Netflix @ Twitter)
A still from the trailer. (Photo | Netflix @ Twitter)

Darlings have a cast to kill for. Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma and Roshan Mathew headline this seductive black comedy set in Mumbai. But that’s just the start. Equally fascinating, at least to me, are the supporting players who populate the world of this film. Vijay Maurya, Rajesh Sharma, Puja Swarup, Kiran Karmarkar and Ajit Kelkar turn up in minor parts and make them memorable. Even in unimportant scenes, your eye is never bored. Darlings is a reminder that, though Hindi cinema may be having a generally drab year, it’s not for a lack of human resources.

The film opens with a short, smart prologue. Badrunissa (Alia Bhatt) rushes to a movie date with her boyfriend, Hamza (Vijay Varma). She waits and waits, missing the show. He turns up late, bearing a teddy bear and apologizing. “Government job leke aya (I found a government job),” he tells her. “Let’s get married.” Badru brightens up, hugging him. The couple looks happy though we already know what’s coming. It’s also notable, I think, that the scene unfolds outside a famous multiplex in Mumbai. Having missed a film, Badru’s life proceeds to get decidedly un-filmy.

When we meet her next, Badru is three years into an abusive marriage. Hamza, a jerk and an alcoholic, routinely hits his wife, triggered by anything from slips in her cooking to a genuine concern for his well-being. He’s an inept ticket examiner by profession, projecting—it is suggested—his anger and frustration from work on his quietly suffering wife. Badru tries everything to get him to change: de-addiction pills, titillation, even a child. One day, pushed beyond all fathomable limits, she takes her husband hostage.

Darlings (Photo | Alia Bhatt @ Instagram)
Darlings (Photo | Alia Bhatt @ Instagram)

Going by the trailer of Darlings, you’d expect this twist to come much earlier on in the film. Crime comedies, after all, are all about the payoff. But director Jasmeet K Reen is loath to jump the gun. Teaming with co-writer Parveez Sheikh, she takes time delineating the patterns of abuse. The first hour is a gripping yet excruciating loop of Hamza’s violations of his wife. He’s a baiter and a master manipulator, frighteningly aware of his wife’s hopes and dreams and emotional weak points and using them to his advantage. Delicately, without ever really blaming her, the film shows how far Badru has internalized his behaviour. Shamsu (Shefali Shah), Badru’s acerbic, hard-bitten mother, repeatedly tells her to leave him. But she can’t. Class no doubt plays a part in it. “Things have changed for folks on Twitter,” Shamsu tells a cop at one point. “Not for us.”

Alia is brilliant as Badrunissa. As in Gully Boy (2019) and Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), her Bombaiyaa accent is spot-on (with an eccentric ‘S’ added to the ends of English words). While her characters in the aforementioned films were defined by their assertiveness, Badru is a bit of a muddle. Even after she has restrained, drugged up and tortured Hamza, she remains weirdly open to his machinations and appeals (or gives a good impression of it). Shefali is entertaining as Shamsu, “Badappan gaya kan khujane,” she shoots—though the winner, clearly, is Vijay Varma. There are more layers to his Hamza than all one-note abusive husbands from Hindi films combined. He’s a creature of pauses and tics. His menace comes in bursts. Nana Patekar would be proud.

Badrunissa (Alia Bhatt) from the movie Darling
Badrunissa (Alia Bhatt) from the movie Darling

Cinematographer Anil Mehta works masterfully within limited spaces and settings. Notice how, in the early stages of the film, he retains his angles inside Hamza and Badru’s home, and changes them up only after the dynamics of this cramped household have shifted. The intricacies of Chawl's life are emphasised; you get a sense of a hundred small hustles running parallelly. The songs, too, are a banger, especially the wild and swooning ‘Pleaj!’ by Mika Singh.

The second half loses some of its edgy focus. Having pushed its characters to a corner, the film struggles to bail them out. Jasmeet appears to be searching for a clean finish, despite the obvious messiness of what’s unfolding onscreen. Certain indulgences, like portraying the cop characters in strictly comic terms, could’ve been avoided. On the whole, though, Darlings entices and thrills, even if I wish the film had gone all out. I wish it had killed its darlings.

Director: Jasmeet K Reen
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma, Vijay Maurya, Rajesh Sharma, Puja Swarup
Streaming on: Netflix
Rating: 3.5

(This review originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)

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