This review is written by Bilal Khan, student of Christ University, Bengaluru. Bilal is a prolific blogger with interests on subjects such as gender, domestic violence, religion amongst others. Read other blogs by the author here.
OTT platforms in India allow more filmmakers to express themselves freely regarding societal issues. This freedom comes at the price of collecting a viewership that could equate to a traditional cinema blockbuster audience. In some way or another, a societal issue becomes a spectacle to be advertised. While I might be sounding a little too cynical, the case of Darlings (2022) brings a lot into the fold, and we will go through it step-by-step as we always do.
Directed by Jasmeet K. Reen, the movie stars big names like Alia Bhatt as Badrunissa “Badru” Shaikh and Vijay Varma as Hamza Shaikh. Before getting into the details of the frames, I would like to summarise the plot a little bit. We are introduced to Badru and Hamza as a cutesy couple, probably in their early 20s, thinking of marrying each other. Three years later, we see the couple is still in love until Hamza finds two small pebbles in his food. Here, the act of domestic violence is hinted at for the first time. Hamza is an unhinged character who physically abuses his wife after getting drunk. Badru is more or less done with Hamza, but because of the ideology of marriage and Hamza’s coercion is forced to stay with him. There are some external plot lines alongside this established structure: the character Zulfi played by Roshan Mathew, who is perceived as the lover of Badru, the insights of marriage and men from Shamshu (my favourite character) played by Shefali Shah, et cetera. Though the movie is more or less linear, the climax initiates in the second part of the plot line. SPOILER ALERT! Hamza deliberately causes a miscarriage which triggers the cathartic overturning of Badru’s character, who now demands respect and revenge. Through a lot of shenanigans and dark comedy, the goal is achieved with Hamza being accidentally killed by an oncoming train and Badru returning to the same theatre she waited for Hamza in the starting. The difference is that this time she watches the movie alone, unbothered by the fact that she is alone and happier in the fact that she is an individual.
Now that we have covered the basic plotline let’s discuss the movie in detail.
Marriage and Coercion
The idea of marriage is presented in the movie as an encaged space for women. There is no better way to put it. Shamshu and Badru are stuck in a setup that goes far beyond their reach. Badru, a victim of perpetual domestic abuse, is forced by an invisible force to be with Hamza. Even when her mother suggests leaving her husband, she is bound by these phantom chains. But who holds this chain? Who casts the iron?
According to Engels, the monogamous nuclear family only emerged with Capitalism. Before Capitalism, traditional, tribal societies were classless and they practised a form of ‘primitive communism’ in which there was no private property. In such societies, property was collectively owned, and the family structure reflected this – there were no families as such, but tribal groups existed in a kind of ‘promiscuous horde’ in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships.
Though Engels might have biased views of indigenous people, the idea of a nucleus family becomes one of society’s most passive and rigid structures. We see the rigidity of it when domestic violence is considered something tolerable for everyone in the movie, including Badru. But a little more overt understanding of marriage is portrayed through the impossible escape from this structure. Divorce is something that neither Shamshu nor Badru thinks about. Murder is supposedly more convenient in the movie than divorce. In this satirical notion, the film becomes Indian. India sees marriage as a pure vow that should not be broken. To consider divorce as a way out is a very Western notion (or at least accessible to families in the West); therefore, we see the characters struggling with that notion.
This societal notion is only concretised by Shamshu during the confrontation with a police inspector who suggests divorce. With society also comes societal coercion. Coercion is a tricky term to understand that connotes multiple things. For the sense of the word, coercion is making someone do something involuntarily through persuasion. This persuasion can be a physical threat. From this “can be” rises the connotative meaning related to other hegemonic practices. Badru might not even feel her subscription to marriage is involuntary due to the hegemony of marriage. In that way, it becomes complicated to detect coercion. One can understand this notion in the movie as the section where Hamza is about to be jailed, and he manipulates Badru to let him go. The scene is loaded with Hamza cursing himself, crying, promising Badru utopian ideas like children and quitting alcohol. Hamza’s promises work as hegemonic practices that Badru voluntarily (but involuntarily) conform to.
One of the most praiseworthy attempts at understanding coercion can be seen through the song La Illaj. The song is written by none other than Gulzar and sung by Arijit Singh. It is a typical Bollywood romantic song with the couple in love and preparing for the baby’s arrival. I think this song was an attempt to make the audience or, more like coaxing the audience into thinking that Hamza is a nice person. The same person we hated during the jail scene manipulating his wife is now manipulating us outside the screen. One of the lyrics translates to “O poor heart, it is uncurable”. And yes, the idea of giving Hamza a chance by Badru and now by the audience is uncurable. I think this flawed understanding of sympathy and coercion is portrayed beautifully through the song.
The Case of the Castrated Man
Okay, bear with me on this, and I know this sounds outlandish, but I see Hamza as a man suffering from the Freudian concept of castration. The castration anxiety explained by Freud concerning boys and (to an extent men) is a fear of being castrated by other men and, in general, by their fathers. If we include the idea of power, obviously, the Father has power over the Son, and that’s how Freud also understands the complex. Hamza is seen as a person with no power outside his house. The senior ticket collector makes him clean his toilet, and other men see him as a drunkard. The only way to power left is to make someone else submit before him; this is where alcohol and Badru come in. And one of the biggest reasons for domestic violence is frustration subjecting to the wife.
I mean, the complex is only accentuated from the arrival of Zulfi in the fold. Even though Zulfi had feelings for Shamshu, Hamza mistakes him for having feelings for Badru. As pointed out by Saibal Chatterjee in his review, Zulfi as a character is “diametrically antithetical” to Hamza. Zulfi is liked by people, liked by Shamshu and by Badru. He does not portray toxic masculinity; he does not feel attacked when questioned and, most importantly, follows his passion. Therefore, the goriest display of domestic violence was put on the screen when Hamza felt less powered or castrated by Zulfi. Zulfi, at that right moment, takes the variable of the Father.
PS: I am not justifying Hamza’s atrocities; I am just pointing out the psyche of men like Hamza. As rightly pointed out by Hope Gilette, domestic violence is about control. I am just adding the angle of psychosexual analysis concerning that lack of control and the idea of power.
Lastly, this is the critique that bothered me at places while watching the movie. As I pointed out earlier, the film was released on an OTT platform, and its perception was far or less already throughout to be a gritty and realistic movie dealing with a societal issue. There are some scenes in the film that I want to question if they should have been put on the screen. I have to connect the movie with another soap opera that used to air in India some years ago, Dil Se Di Dua…Saubhagyavati Bhava? For lack of a better word here, the show lowkey glorified domestic violence with spectacles. When it comes to Darlings, it does not promote it, but it does put theatrical appeal to the shots. For example, the first instance involving pebbles was portrayed as a chair falling in slow-mo. The audience is left in a grasp of what happened. Suspense is created at the cost of Badru.
In another instance, we see Hamza forcing Badru to play pinfinger with him. He uses a stiletto heel (nice symbolism there) instead of a traditional knife. With the background score going high and the continuous stomping of the heel, the audience is flinching but again in suspense. The camera never pans towards the finger being hit by the heel, but crafty sound effects give us the full detail of it.
My critique invokes a forwarding question: how do we manage to portray these things on the screen if not through displaying them as they are–and I guess I would also not have a clear answer to that. Yes, the movie needs to portray certain scenes to bring out the actuality of Hamza’s character, but doing it at the cost of the female victim just does not fit right with me.
The movie does a lot of things right and a few things wrong. As rightly pointed out by Monika Rawal Kukreja, “But in parts, the story does bother you when domestic violence is used as a ploy to trigger laughs….” But the movie does redeem itself by disassociating alcohol with domestic violence. Nevertheless, the film is a must-watch not for laughs but a good introduction of what marriages can lead to and how revenge is not the answer. Putting Shamshu’s PTSD regarding killing her husband and paralleling it with her daughter’s life was a much-appreciated idea. But then again, Hamza’s death seemed unnecessary, fan service and lazy writing. So, as you can guess from my writing, I am still conflicted about the movie. Do leave your comments, and I hope it could also provide me with some clarity.
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