Dark comedy can be a tricky genre. While it permits a filmmaker the creative freedom needed for their ideas to flourish, it also allows them to play with character motivations, leading their dark and/or grey nature to weave into the tapestry that they have created. With Darlings (2022), director Jasmeet K Reen and co-writer Parveez Sheikh turn a Mumbai chawl into a place that entirely operates within our realities but is heightened by a sense of extremities.
It has been three years since Badru (Alia Bhatt) and Humza (Vijay Varma) have been married and from the looks of it, not everything is happy in paradise. A drunk Humza beats her for a trivial mistake, but, because there is love involved, she forgives him and feeds him her ‘world’s best omelet’ the very next day.
Now Badru feels like a fairly reasonable woman who wouldn’t take anyone’s shit, but when it comes to having her own agency in front of her star-crossed lover, she doesn’t seem to have one. Unlike her mother (Shefali Shah) – the single woman who lives just a gaze away from Badru’s window, constantly plodding her daughter to either leave the man, kill him, and/or move in with her, Badru constantly finds reasons for Humza behaving a certain way.
Basically, she blames the alcohol for him being abusive, and since she is someone who likes to plan everything out in life, on her mother’s insistence she plots to mix a healthy dose of anti-abuse in his food. As expected, things don’t go according to plan and she is beaten again. However, the cycle of forgiving him also continues. So, this time, she plans to conceive a child believing that he will leave alcohol for good when the baby comes into their life – unaware that the man only has selfish motives behind that too.
Darlings really picks up when a first police complaint against Humza is lodged. Zulfi (Roshan Matthew) – an aspiring writer who hangs around Badru’s mother’s house helping her out with things, couldn’t take the abuse anymore. While he is there to help the strong, single woman start a cooking service with the help of her daughter, he is a relatively reasonable man who understands what’s wrong.
This complaint opens the film’s conflict for more intriguing narrative turns. However, the film constantly feels like it is taking 2 steps backward for every step forward. The delicious and biting progression is wasted on badly edited sequences that fail to capitalize on its extremely pulpy dark comedic aspects. It also doesn’t help that the film only feels truly alive for a short period of time in the second half; housebound with Badru, who, for the first time in her life – doesn’t have a plan.
Sure there are aspects that work – a story about a woman in love, dejected and constantly manipulated into believing a man’s word, failing to have her own say in things is ripe for the black comedy treatment. Writer Parveez Sheikh and director Jasmeet K Reen seem to have the right elements to tell this story, but their over-resilience in exposition – note that the story of the Scorpio and the Frog is repeated twice, doesn’t help their cause.
I personally think that black comedies work if they know when and how to change their tone. For instance, a movie like Parasite moves from comedic to thriller mode with ease. However, a film like Darlings constantly oscillates in between. When shit hits the fan, Reen is unable to weave her comedic bits with the more chaotic ones. This leads to the narrative losing its tension quite easily. I also did not like that an interaction in the film about ‘horror-comedies’ and ‘mixing tones’ in a story is inserted just to critic-proof it.
Darlings leads towards a climax that feels fairly predictable, making the use of a heightened sense of realism, feel like a sort of distraction and a detour, rather than taking an original approach to a dark and complex underpinning. It also doesn’t help that in a story about women, the most memorable turn comes from Vijay Varma. Playing the abusive, alcoholic husband, Varma changes gears from being an absolute sweetheart to a manipulative asshole within seconds, making us believe that Badru not being able to stand on her own is not something she does deliberately.
However, not much works for the movie otherwise. Alia and Shefali have great chemistry together, but it’s the actors who give the character more gravitas and not the writing itself. Nitin Baid’s editing is also one of the culprits here as you can clearly see the repetition that ends up being more of a flack than an element that moves the story forward.
Overall, Darlings is an ambitious production that puts the right question and the right ways to deal with men who feel like the ‘good people’ on the surface but are demons in plain sight. However, I am not sure if it has the right tools to get there.