Caution: Spoilers ahead about Darlings.

A dark comedy about domestic violence? Jasmeet K Reen’s directorial debut Darlings daringly tackles a difficult subject with a wicked glint in the eye.

The Netflix release stars Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah as Badrunissa and Shamshunissa, a lower middle-class mother and daughter living in Mumbai’s Byculla neighbourhood, and Vijay Varma as Badru’s abusive husband. The cast includes Roshan Mathew as a delivery agent for Shamshu’s tiffin service.

Although Badru is being regularly beaten up by the alcoholic Hamza, she ignores Shamshu’s entreaties to leave Hamza and walks back from a police complaint. Badru eventually pairs up with Shamshu to teach Hamza a lesson, but they differ on just how severe the punishment should be.

The film’s theme is captured by the fable about the scorpion hitching a ride on a frog’s back and then stinging it despite promising not to do so. The act drowns the both of them – proof of the scorpion’s inability to change its nature even at the risk of self-harm. In Darlings, written by Reen and Parveez Shaikh, Badru’s true awakening takes place when she gives her own interpretation to the story.

In an interview, 42-year-old Reen spoke to about maintaining the tricky balance between delivering an entertaining comedy and a message about combating abuse.

Was the fable about the frog and the scorpion always a part of the script?
Darlings started with a one-line idea that I had about a mother-daughter story. There is a mother-daughter who are trying to fix the daughter’s marriage. The daughter is in love with the husband, the husband is in love with her, but there is something wrong with that marriage and they are trying to set it right. But they come up with wacked-out ideas.

Then came Byculla as a setting, because the lingo is so rich. I thought about the idea for a really long time with my co-writer Parvez Shaikh. To direct something, you need to give it many years and you need to like it enough to know that you can pull it off

The scorpion and frog story came during the writing. The mother is at the cop station and is trying to explain to Badru that men like Hamza will never change. That so beautifully became the theme of the film. The parable tells you the nature of things. It’s up to you whether you want to change others or yourself. It’s hard to change yourself, but it’s easier than changing the whole world. That’s how you take it in your hands and stand up for yourself.

Darlings (2022).

Tell us about balancing dark comedy with messaging about domestic violence.
There was space for comedy within the idea itself. It was tricky because you have to and want to be sensitive to something like this. Nowhere in the film are the characters laughing at what is happening. They mean what they saying, but the situation is funny.

Dark comedy is always a tricky genre. You have to be very careful while writing it. I actually dig this genre. After we wrote the script, I watched [Bong Joon-ho’s] Parasite and [Taika Waititi’s] Jojo Rabbit. Of course, they are very different films. They deal with their subjects in a very interesting way, but they are also very well-crafted and well-written.

It’s our job as filmmakers to entertain and engage. We are getting a lot of love. I am grateful because it’s a bit of a hatke [different] script. If people enjoy the film and start a conversation, that’s good enough for me.

Is Darlings based on true events?
Whatever you create, you live and you experience, either through somebody else, or you read or you watch in films. This is complete fiction, it’s not a true story.

Of course, once I had the idea, I spoke to a lot of people across strata. I spoke to a lot of women to create characters responsibly. What I realised is that it’s hard for women to let go, to walk away. That’s why in the end Badru says, my respect is mine to have, why should I take it from somebody else?

The film is deliberately paced: there are one-shot sequences, a gradual build-up to moments of violence. What conversations did you have with cinematographer Anil Mehta?
The first half of the film is slower. The idea was to be in the room with them. People have told me the first half-hour shakes them.

The conversation was to keep it very real, as if you were in the house with them. Anil and I decided that we would not keep cutting for the sake of cutting to a wide, a close or a mid-shot. Even in the one-takes, we didn’t take extra shots. We cut a lot more in the second half. We should not expect what is going to happen next. You should feel it has to be gut-wrenching otherwise it won’t work.

Anil Mehta is amazing at that, he likes to shoot that way. Given his experience, he understood that lots of emotions can come from the characters, especially when powerhouse actors are involved. We decided this approach at the scripting stage. My production designer Garima [Mathur] receed a lot of houses in chawls. But since the spaces were very cramped, we made a set. Since we had a set, I had blocked and staged all the scenes with my assistant directors.

The actors pretty much followed the staging, since it was inherent to the script. A lot of effort went into making the film as natural and real as possible.

Darlings (2022).

Could the film have been shorter than its current 133-minute length?
I don’t think so. I am happy with this cut. Luckily, both my producers and Gaurav [Varma, of Red Chillies Entertainment] were happy too.

The mother’s feeling is, either just kill Hamza or get out of the situation. But Badru is confused, and she needed the time. She feels that something is not right. She is trying to follow an instinct, and it needs to come together for her. She can’t be so clear, since she isn’t a professional. She doesn’t know how to do these things. Their idea of getting back at Hamza is making him shell peas. They are simple, they are scared of doing something wrong, they are a bit off.

Having assembled the cast you wanted, how did you work with each of them?
It was a dream come true. When I met Shefali the first time, I knew she was Shamshu. She has said in a lot of interviews that the character is closest to herself. She doesn’t have a filter and she speaks her mind. That quality is very Shamshunissa.

To get the rhythm right needed a lot of prep on my part. I prepped with each of the actors differently. All four of them have different processes, and I wanted to marry their processes so that they could give their best to the film. I knew what tone each and every one was taking. I also knew the mother-daughter would be pitched a notch higher in the second half, because they panic.

We did two readings. Alia and Shefali don’t act in readings, but I got a sense of how they were going to play their characters. Once we came on sets, it was much smoother.

With Hamza, we tried many different tones – he’s drinking in the first half, he’s drugged in the second half. There are so many ways to play it, being a little more or a little less drunk doesn’t work at times.

Jasmeet K Reen.

Also read:

‘Darlings’ review: A dark comedy with sparkling performances