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Despite ‘Darlings’ being Jasmeet K. Reen’s debut film, there’s a sense of experience behind every move. Everything about it looks and feels like smart moviemaking. From its cinematography to its pacing to its acting, ‘Darlings’ is a not-so-hidden gem in the global ascendency of Bollywood.
With two major production houses backing the film — legendary Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment and star Alia Bhatt’s Eternal Sunshine Productions — Reen had all the resources she could’ve dreamt of. Throw in the notoriously free-spending streaming giant Netflix, and ‘Darlings’ was poised to be a hit. When Netflix bought the rights to the film in February 2022, there were some questions about the film’s reception, but those have been beyond answered. ‘Darlings’ managed the highest global opening for a Non-English Indian film, with well over 10 million hours watched across the world. Of course, anything in Bollywood with Khan attached will find some success, with one of the brightest young stars in Alia Bhatt, and some pressing themes of domestic violence, it was bound for success.
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The film opens with Badru (Bhatt) waiting on her lover Hamza (Vijay Varma), who shows up late to their date but tells her that because he finally got a good government job, they can finally be married. Hard cut to three years later at the dinner table, and things are different — a long, silent take where the clinking of silverware is more unsettling. Hamza crunches down on something to his distaste, and Badru holds out her practiced hand for him to spit in. When it happens again a moment later, Hamza is not so “merciful.” He grabs her by the neck, and Reen cuts to the neighbors who hear Badru’s screams from below. It’s a stomach-turning moment so soon into the movie, but it’s almost playfully done. Reen is excellent at teasing the tension out of a scene, and the beats she hits throughout the film competently manage to turn dark to light.
Hamza’s abuse continues, while Badru’s mother, Shamsu (played by Shefali Shah) tries to convince Badru to leave him. Her own husband, it turns out, had treated her similarly. Just when things seem to have healed between Hamza and Badru, their marriage stronger than ever before, things get worse. A lot worse, as Badru literally and metaphorically falls down a flight of stairs. From that moment on, Things go from dark to twisted from that moment on, and Badru and Shamsu take drastic measures to exact revenge on Hamza.
The abused becomes the abuser in ‘Darlings’, and there’s comedy enough to make it work. Led by Bhatt, the performances of the three main characters are each remarkably strong. Where there’s weakness in the script, it’s almost undetectable underneath the actors’ delivery. Bhatt is enveloping with her meek yet fiery performance, while Shah shines as her more overbearing and ambitious mother. Varma deserves a lot of credit for striking a hateable, nearly redeemable bad guy with equal parts callousness and passion. Together, the trio emote the chemistry of an actual family, especially the mother-daughter relationship.
At its core, ‘Darlings’ is as much a mother-daughter movie as it is a cautionary tale of domestic abuse. “My idea was about a mother-daughter duo who have dreams, but there is something wrong – the daughter’s marriage is off. So, they come up with whacky ideas about fixing her marriage,” Reen said of her inspiration. Shamsu’s cynicism about Hamza’s ways are made clear throughout, as Shamsu often genuinely (though it comes off comically) suggests that they kill him. “We’ll throw him in the Tiger’s cage,” is just one of the many suggestions she has for her daughter’s abuser. The throughline is a darkly funny story of a mother’s guidance, as her instincts about Hamza were right all along. It isn’t clear if her willingness for violence is due to her love for her daughter or a vicarious method to get back at her old husband, but she is clearly the type of character to go the extra mile (or all the way to the Zoo).
Every technical feature of the film is really a testament to Reen’s sense of story and the technology afforded to her to make it. There is one beautifully shot scene of Hamza on a moped with another character, Zulfi, whom he suspects of treachery. The scene goes back and forth from a moving shot of the bike and the rearview mirror that captures the characters’ emotions in a backward sort of way. It doesn’t stand out compared to the rest of the cinematography, but it’s just evidence of the almost nonchalant movie magic ‘Darlings’ is capable of at every turn. It’s also rare to notice a film’s pacing in a positive light, but this is a film that knows itself inside and out. Down to the length of the individual scene, it’s clear Reen is simply in control of the story she’s telling. For a story about a woman learning to take control of her own life situation, it’s a fitting quality.
However, the story she’s telling isn’t always as sleek as she thinks it is. The ethos of the movie is right out there in the open, and Reen stretches it out over 2 hours when it could have been much shorter. The pacing is well adjusted to the film’s length, a testament to its editing, but it ultimately has relatively little to say despite its run time. Though there are plenty of good film garnishes — nice montages, a great score, and set design — the film only has one real trick. After setting up a well-crafted and realistic narrative, the film pivots about halfway through to the hair-brained and gimmicky storyline that finishes out the film. There are some fun misadventures that keep you entertained till the end, but nothing new really happens. It’s less that there’s a developing story on hand than it is about an hour of, admittedly pleasurable, indecision. Till the end, when… well, you’ll have to watch yourself, and you should. Where the script dawdles, the strength of everything else makes up for it.
You can catch Bhatt in her upcoming project ‘Brahmastra: Part One’ as Bollywood tries its hand in the superhero genre. Meanwhile, you can catch ‘Darlings’ streaming on Netflix.
Cast and Crew:
Dir: Jasmeet K. Reen
Writers: Parveez Sheikh, Jasmeet K. Reen, Vijay Muarya
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma, Roshan Matthew
Produced: Vishesh Agrawal, Danish Ansari, Vikram Arora, Alia Bhatt, Gauri Khan, Imtiyaz Khan, Dharam Soni, Gaurav Verma
Film Editing: Nitin Baid
By Patrick Lynott
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Patrick Lynott is a writer and screenwriter. He cares about Cinema. He cares about meaningful stories. And he cares about preserving and elevating things that people work long and hard on.Despite the incessant barrage of “content” vying for his (and everyone’s) attention, he believes it’s never been more important to pedestalize labors of real art across from a spectrum of voices. The Hollywood Insider is one of the few networks committed to doing this through substantive coverage of quality entertainment. The future of good Cinema and healthy culture relies on outlets and people willing to champion those values. Here’s to that future.