Gangubai Kathiawadi is one of the better films this year, but Darlings improves upon it in at least one respect: it gives Alia Bhatt a worthy partner to spar with. Not Vijay Varma, effectively odious though he is. No, Bhatt’s real match is with Shefali Shah. They’re a formidable tag team, Shamshunissa and Badrunissa, mother and daughter—and the two actors are fantastic together. It joins a short list of memorable female pairings in recent Hindi cinema: Swara Bhasker and Ratna Pathak Shah in Nil Battey Sannata, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan and Saloni Batra in Soni, Taapsee Pannu and Dia Mirza in Thappad, Bhumi Pednekar and Seema Pahwa in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan...
Badru (Bhatt) begins the day by cooking omelette-pav for her husband, Hamza (Varma). He then heads to work, a ticket collector with the local railways. He returns in the evening, frustrated and irritable, and start to drink. He finds an excuse to beat up Badru. In the morning he apologizes, blames the alcohol, she forgives him. We see this play out a few times, and it’s not hard to imagine how often it must have repeated itself over the three years they’ve been married.
Darlings wastes no time in letting us know what kind of film it is. Six minutes in, Hamza has raised his hand against Badru. Five minutes later, Shamshunissa (Shah) tells her daughter that he's not the sort of man who'll listen to reason, that she must think tedha (crooked). A little later, her advice becomes more explicit—end him before he kills you. She tells Badru the story of the scorpion that stings the frog that’s transporting it across the river, even though it means both die. “Some men are scorpions,” she says. “They never change.” Since Hamza seems incapable of curbing his violence, we wait for the culling.
But then Darlings swerves—though it’s only a swerve if you haven’t seen the trailer. Badru snaps, but not to the extent of killing her husband. Instead, she ties him up, drugs him, roughs him up like he's done to her so many times. The film, already darkly humorous, becomes a pitch-black screwball comedy, with Shamshu and Badru keeping a drugged-up Hamza hidden and battered, parrying the inquiries of Hamza’s boss and the inept but suspicious local cops.
There’s been a steady stream of perverse neo-noir out of Bollywood lately. Earlier this year there was the dacoit noir Thar, and a little over 12 months ago we had Haseen Dillruba, another film with a messed-up marriage and torture as means of communication. But Jasmeet K. Reen’s film is altogether more successful in maintaining its tricky tone. Much of this is down to the actors. Varma is scary and doesn’t fish for a shred of audience sympathy. And Bhatt navigates with her customary serenity a role that requires her to switch from fear to love to pity to anger. She’ll sweep the awards for Gangubai, but this is her best work this year.
If Bhatt is at ease in these surroundings—Gully Boy had a similar milieu—so is Shah. Twenty-four years ago she was unforgettable as Pyaari in Satya, no small feat in a film dedicated to men and their plans. There’s a similar force and forthrightness in Shamshunissa, and a dark undercurrent: she had an unworthy husband as well. Bhatt is usually quicker than the actors she’s paired with, but not Shah. They turn a scene at the police station into a prime double act, all half-glances and unfinished sentences and deadpan reaction shots (Vijay Maurya as the inspector is great too).
As befits a Gulzar-inflected film—he’s the lyricist—the writing, by Maurya, Reen and Parveez Sheikh, is pointy and colourful (I loved when one of the cops says he has a “confirmed doubt” about Badru). The ending might be a little too clever, but the film doesn’t stumble in the complicated run-up, deploying its supporting characters—Rajesh Sharma as a helpful butcher, spaniel-eyed Roshan Mathew as a nervous accomplice—at just the right moment (Mathew defuses one situation with an incredible confession).
This is a light-footed and often light-hearted film, which feels strange to say considering the heaviness that descends when Hamza is under the influence. It’s like Reen told her co-writers: ‘Diabolique, but funny’. Then again, noir allows you to do that. It’s the most malleable form because it isn’t really a genre but something that attaches itself to genres. It’s a tone thing—and Darlings, above all, is a tonal achievement.