Darling yes, but Darlings? Is it a love-triangle? Is it a typo?

It is neither—it is the quaint way Badrunissa adds an “s” to most of her English words.

Set in a chawl in Mumbai, Darlings is a movie about how a romantic relationship can deteriorate into a saga of domestic abuse. It is with some trepidation that one approaches this movie, which has been categorized as a “dark comedy,” and Bollywood doesn’t really have much in that genre to boast about. A film that deals with domestic violence is tricky in the first place. Trying comedy in that premise could well be playing with fire. But hats off to the Darlings team for pulling it off so marvellously.

The movie begins at the point where usual “formula” films end—the hero literally sweeping the happy heroine off her feet with the promise of marriage. It is only in hindsight that we realize what a delicious twist has been achieved here. Romantic films traditionally used to have credits rolling at the end of a movie with the happy lead couple walking off into the sunset. Here, that is the first scene and the credits roll in the beginning of the movie, as we watch the much-in-love couple getting engaged and assume their happily ever after.

A still from the film Darlings.

Only, this is probably the first and last of such unadulterated joy for the couple. The director very cleverly uses the beginning to show how swiftly the delusion will fade into a tale of abuse. The twist in the placing of the credits, and the short sequence prior to that gives the viewer a glimpse of what is in store for them.

 The movie begins three years after the marriage. Badrunissa aka Badru (Alia Bhatt) and Hamza (Vijay Varma) look like a normal, happy couple, chatting at the dinner table as the wife serves and the husband eats. If you are starting to raise your eye-brows at that, wait, there’s more.

The next minute, Hamza cracks his teeth on a piece of grit in the rice. The quick, frightened stiffening of Badru’s back, Hamza’s expression and the sheer normalcy of the utterly demeaning, dehumanising act of Badru holding out her hand for her husband to spit the grit out in her palm brings out the whole sordid story in an instant.

We watch stupefied as Hamza grabs Badru by her throat for her “offense.” The scene shifts to the beauty parlour downstairs where the sympathetic proprietor makes a wry face at what clearly is a daily thing. And her reaction encapsulates how our society mostly reacts to the many stories of abuse around us.

A still from the film Darlings.

We see the alternately abusive and lovingly contrite Hamza; the bruised, battered and confused Badru go through the typical abusive cycle. We root for the fierce mother Shamsunnissa (an utterly delectable Shefali Shah) with her injunctions to either leave the husband, or kill him. As we witness the typical vicious circle of the wife getting abused and then fervently appeased by her wily husband, we wait for this worm to turn.

It takes a heart-breaking fallout of the abuse for Badru to realize what a beast her husband has turned into. What follows is a tale of how the mother-daughter duo plan their unique revenge on Hamza with the help of their friends in the chawl. Without giving out the details, suffice it to say that the story with its audacious, quirky and at the same time hilarious, twists and turns is the stuff edge-of-the-seat thrillers are made which lead to a very satisfying end.

Bhatt and Shah inhabit Badru and Shamsu completely, and their chemistry is like a live wire—whether it is their daily conversations across the chawl on the phone or the exchange of their glances which conveys volumes. Shah, far from the restricted acting she’s known for, sparkles with joi de vivre when the mother daughter are misleading the police, or making their plans for Hamza’s future.

Varma’s Hamza is so convincingly creepy, and aided by brilliant background sound, you can feel your stomach tightening in apprehension as you wonder what form of torture is he planning in his convoluted mind and what havoc he has in store for his poor, gullible wife.

Similarly, Rajesh Sharma as Qasim and Roshan Matthew as the besotted Zulfi leave their mark despite their shorter roles. Full marks to the Art director and the editor for bringing the dingy, noisy and vibrant chawl to life. Finally, hats off to Vishal Bhardwaj’s music and Gulzar’s lyrics taking the story lyrically forward.

There have been Hindi movies dealing with the same theme of abuse, like Agnisakshi, Daman, and more recently Provoked and Thappad. While all of them addressed the issue of domestic violence and were sincere in their own ways, what puts Darlings in a different category altogether is the way how the director—Jasmeet K Reen and the writers, Reem with Parvez Shaikh and Vijay Maurya, steadfastly keep the story from sinking into the mire of gloom and doom.

The movie is definitely more than the sum of its parts but one does wish that the trailers did not give out this much of the story!

Madhumita Gupta has written for The Times of India, Hindustan Times, and the India Currents. Her prize-winning stories have been published in various anthologies and international publications like SAWF...