When Shamshunissa(Shefali) and Badrunissa(Alia) walk into the police station, the inspector mentions that nisha in hindi means night. Like their names, the lives of this ordinary-looking woman and daughter hold a lot of darkness. The darkness of a dimly lit apartment where Badrunnisa is abused by her husband, a night where she realises that she cannot change her husband, and finally a cinema hall where she goes to enjoy a film all by herself.
The dark comedy whose teaser itself won hearts with the tale of the scorpion and the frog is worthy of praise if not breakthrough acclaim. The writers of the film manage to find humour in a tale of domestic violence. As Badru is beaten, a bride is getting ready in the parlour below her house: the story told in the cramped Mumbai chawl is a lived experience with humour hidden in a lot of darkness. At its core, is a formidable cast.
After notable performances in Raazi, Udta Punjab and Gangubai, Alia Bhatt has emerged as a one-woman army whose name itself commands merit. Darlings is her first as a producer and it works. With Sehmat(in Raazi) or Badru, Alia beautifully portrays delicacy as powerful. Badru is naive, humane and full of love. Like her husband retorts, she has seldom been on her own. Vijay Verma, a thorough method actor is at his best here. Hamza is a wife beater, alcoholic and deeply insecure. He brings the nuances of a despicable abuser, changing colours like a chameleon.
Shefali Shah, for me, is one dangerously underrated actor. Shamsu, popularly known as Khala at first appears like a casual criminal or part-time witch. Unlike her daughter, Shamsu knows the reality of men and the world. Left by her husband, she has learned long to fend for herself alone. When an inspector says ‘Duniya Badal Gayi Hai’, she befittingly replies, “Twitter walon ke liye badli hogi, humare liye nahi.”
Her grace, strength and resilience is inspiring even when all she does is scheme and plan deceit. The climax reveals a chilling detail that one did not see coming.
Not just the main cast, but supporting characters such as Roshan Mathew playing Zulfi, a long-time aspirant of being a partner in Khala’s tiffin service is delightful to watch. His banter with the two ladies gives the film its humorous bits and makes for the most unpredictable twists.
A small problem with Darlings is that the trailer of the film had already prepared the audience for the progression of events. This made the story predictable but regardless, it was exciting to unravel the how. Another few minutes in the first and second half could easily be struck off from the 2-hour, 13-minute film. One wonders how might it have fared with the same duration on the big screen.
Nonetheless, the strength of the characters, their rich world, the stories and the spirit of Darlings move it to a smooth finish. You can appreciate it on Netflix.