Darlings is a dark, droll, deadly delight

Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah play mother and daughter in Darlings. Photo: Netflix

Hindi cinema history shows very few actresses succeeding as producers—the list going all the way from veterans like Shobhana Samarth to actresses like Anushka Sharma. But a smash debut as producer is almost unknown, and that is what Alia Bhatt manages to achieve. For the newly-married couple of Alia and Ranbir Kapoor, Darlings emerges as the perfect antidote to the Shamshera fiasco—it is tightly budgeted, superbly conceived, brilliantly written and charmingly enacted and made.

Alia is clearly influenced significantly by her Gully Boy team, as co-actors Vijay Verma, Vijay Maurya (doubling up here too as co-writer) and film editor Nitin Baid from that film and a funky musician (Mellow D this time) all coming in here. The songs (Vishal Bhardwaj doing the other two with lyricist Gulzar) are purely functional and funky, but as in Gully Boy, relevant. An outstanding standout feature is the magnificent production design by Garima Mathur.

But then, there are very few aspects here that are not standout! The editing is razor sharp and the background score by Prashant Pillai is another highlight for its uniqueness and non-template-like sound in most of the film.

But then, that is precisely what the dynamic of the film is, and that makes it all the more amazing—the film never follows a normal template, even looks irreverently at mainstream tropes and laughs at them, and yet remains on the right side of wholesome entertainment without getting into arty / pseudo / niche zones. We have to applaud the vision of Jasmeet K. Reen, director and co-writer: she has amazing clarity of thought, and had this film released in the movie-halls, it would have still done decent business, which is rare indeed for a dark comedy. However, she ups the economic game by releasing it on OTT, widening its audience too in one stroke.

The film can be celebrated for its truly hilarious humor, hard-hitting statements and graphic glimpses into how callous as well as supportive human beings can be—I am avoiding spoilers here. The message about violence against women and the dangers of alcohol are as crisply shown as the realities of our social fabric, like police helplessness when tortured women strike down complaints, a hint at how cops can have a malefic turnaround and two shocker revelations at different stages of the story.

Not that the film is flawless. There are medical absurdities and also the brazen illogic of why the imprisoned husband (Vijay Verma) could not scream the house down, or the abrupt development when his boss (Kiran Karmarkar) comes visiting. Another flaw is how both mother and daughter, given the way their characters’ arc is, fumble and make mistakes when they lie to others. But this time, in the larger picture, such glitches cannot be said to take away the positives of the movie.

As compensation, the inexorably-growing chilling menace of a manic husband is brought out sharply alongside the confused character of his wife, Badru (Alia Bhatt) and her determined mother Shamshu (Shefali Shah), who just wants to kill off the man who tortures her daughter periodically.

We also have the lovable wannabe writer Zulfi (Roshan Matthew), totally devoted to the family (and the reason for it forms one of the delightful twists in this tale), the sympathetic girl from the beauty parlor (Puja Sarup) and the helpful butcher, Kasim (Rajesh Sharma). At one point, a long-suffering Badru wishes that all men be shot dead, and her mother emphatically tells her that Kasim is an exception. The reason for this, again, is something unexpected.

Full of such delightful twists and moments, the film also had tremendous turns by the protagonists, each vying with each other for supremacy at their craft. Alia Bhatt is phenomenal again after Gangubai Kathiawadi, sinking into the lower middle-class Badru as to the manor born. The growth of this li’l actress in just a decade since she started out has indeed been amazing.

Shefali Shah, another bankable powerhouse performer, outdoes herself yet again. She is incredibly wicked as Shamshu, showing her caring side only to those who matter. Her finest moments come when she reacts to Hamza’s slap and also when she spontaneously accuses Zulfi of conniving to harm Hamza in front of the cops.

Vijay Verma may well be typecast as a blackguard from now on—he is so effortless as the pathologic liar and demon Hamza is, though his backgroiudn is neither shown nor discussed. Roshan Matthew too is a complete natural, and Kiran Karmarkar is great as Hamza’s boss with a penchant for wicked humor. From the rest, Vijay Maurya as the inspector, Rajesh Sharma as the businesslike butcher and Puja Sarup as the neighbor excel.

Do not miss this darling of a movie. It adds to the limited roster of great dark comedies that we have had. And scores highly over last week’s Good Luck Jerry because it is truly a comedy, purer in its darkness, and also makes (more than one) powerful social comments.

Rating: ****

Netflix presents Red Chillies Entertainment & Eternal Sunshine Productions’ Darlings  Produced by: Alia Bhatt, Gauri Khan & Gaurav Verma  Directed by: Jasmeet K. Reen  Written by: Jasmeet K. Reen, Perveez Sheikh & Vijay Maurya Music: Vishal Bhardwaj & Mellow D Starring: Alia Bhatt, Vijay Verma, Shefali Shah, Roshan Matthew, Rajesh Sharma, Santosh Juvekar, Kiran Karmarkar, Vijay Maurya, Puja Sarup, Ajit Kelkar, Divya Vinekar & others




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