The off-kilter worldview of Darlings begins at the title itself. “Darlings” is what Hamza (Vijay Varma) calls his wife Badru (Alia Bhatt). She too has a mania for mangling words (“thanks you”, “bad lucks”). United by their love for the plural, this young couple appears to be perfectly matched, except for Hamza’s uncontrolled drinking habit and nasty tendency to leave bruises on Badru’s pale skin.

Dump him, Badru’s mother Shamshu (Shefali Shah) advises. I have a “jallad (a monster) inside me, Hamza pleads. A railway ticket collector who’s put upon by his boss, Hamza seemingly can’t help himself. That’s what Badru fervently believes until a turn of the screw forces the worm to turn.

Jasmeet K Reen’s assured directorial debut, which she has also written with Parveez Shaikh, is out on Netflix. Darlings is an old-fashioned dark comedy that plays out both in a distinctive milieu (a chawl in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in Mumbai) as well as an artfully designed imaginary bubble in which liberation might be pursued.

Reen boldly gives the sensitive subject of domestic violence the gallows humour treatment. Absurdist and often hilarious situations result from Badru-Shamshu’s masterplan, which plays out in the presence of the permanently exasperated police officer Rajaram (Vijay Maurya).

The mother-daughter pair’s bumbling ways stretch out the suspense over Hamza’s fate. They have an unlikely ally in Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), who would rather be a writer but is instead a delivery boy for Shamshu’s culinary concoctions.

Vijay Varma in Darlings. Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment/Eternal Sunshine Productions /Netflix.

While Darlings doesn’t want to be and cannot be taken literally, it also seeks a lived-in-quality. The socioeconomic setting turns out to be an excuse to revisit the well-thumbed Dictionary of Bambaiyya.

Conversations are layered with the streetsmart patter for which Gully Boy dialogue writer Vijay Maurya has gained a reputation. There are times when Badru appears to be a grown-up version of Safeena from Gully Boy, but before she revealed her feistiness.

It is perhaps inevitable that a movie that plays with affectation has patches of shallowness. For all its imaginativeness, Darlings turns out to be Pedro Almodovar without the transgressive kink, the Coen brothers without the cruelty, Roald Dahl without the macabre twist.

The risky balancing act nevertheless succeeds for the most part. Nestled amidst avoidable flabbiness are sharp repartee, skillfully staged scenes and deftly sketched characters.

Any risk of trivialising the brutalisation of women by men is kept at bay by Vijay Verma’s superbly judged Hamza. Darlings has both laugh-out-loud comedy and supressed giggles. Reen’s control over the lengthier sequences, backed by Anil Mehta’s sinuous camerawork and Nitin Baid’s elegant editing, is strongest when Hamza drops the mask and lets the misogyny show. Varma’s creepy underplaying is all the more convincing because he never tries too hard, though the movie sometimes does.

Having embarked on her mission to reform Hamza, Badru begins to resemble a car stuck in a ditch. I haven’t got the feeling yet, she says for over half the length of the 134-minute film. As we wait for Badru to get her act together, Reen pushes the actors to their limits.

Shefali Shah in Darlings. Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment/Eternal Sunshine Productions /Netflix.

The central role is tailor-made for Alia Bhatt, who has an irrepressible spirit and a flair for light comedy. Bhatt, who has also co-produced Darlings, proves herself to be a team player, never hogging the screen though commanding attention every time she is on it. The film is a bit too much in thrall to Bhatt’s incandescent presence to make Badru’s journey from abused spouse to wicked schemer believable.

Shefali Shah, this film’s other darling, and Roshan Mathew deliver the goods too. Shah’s Shamshu mostly plays second fiddle to Badru until she comes into her own. There are fine cameos by Rajesh Sharma as a mysterious butcher and Kiran Karmarkar as Hamza’s scatter-brained boss.

While there are no precedents to Badru’s reinvention, we instantly recognise Varma’s Hamza – vapid, unctuous, monstrous, pathetic. In a narrative that leans in the direction of fantasy, Hamza is the real article. Not for the first time is a film about a late-blooming heroine memorable because of the thorn in her side.

Darlings (2022).