This article contains spoilers for Netflix's Darlings, according to the editors.
A safety warning is included in Netflix's Darlings.
Warning: Violence against women is dangerous to the health, according to a title card left by Hamza (Vijay Varma) when his wife Badru (Alia Bhatt) holds him captive in their own house after years of domestic abuse.
Darlings, directed by Jasmeet K. Reen and directed by Reen and Perveez Sheikh, comes at a critical time for South Asian audiences. In July, photographer Sania Khan was discovered dead in her Chicago apartment in what police ruled to be a murder-suicide committed by her husband after years of abuse. On the same day that Darlings was screened at a Manhattan theater, domestic abuse victim Mandeep Kaur was discovered dead in a murder case that is now being investigated
Both cases have sparked discussions about domestic abuse and stigma in South Asian communities akin to speaking up, getting divorced, and anything that can be viewed as shameful or defamatory to a society still largely run by men. Bhatt knows where she and Darlings stand in the conversation, and she's ready for the film to bring the Badrus story to life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: This is your first time producing. How did it all begin, and what was the learning curve?
Alia Bhatt: It's been a huge learning experience. I'm finding myself looking at scripts and films from a much wider perspective than I currently have. I'm interested in presenting something that isn't quite my subject for the first time. Darlings came to me very casually, very naturally, and it just felt like a very unique story to tell as a producer for the first time. I'm really interested in the fact that she was putting something new to the test.
What drew you to your role as an actor as a script as an actor?
I like how quickly it changes genre: Where [you] anticipate a basic household story, and you think it'll be about something else, but suddenly, you open up this Pandoras box of] different quirks in each and every character and how they're attempting to rectify the situation but fail, or how they're coping with a stressful moment but have no joy or a relief every now and then. I like to balance the darkness with a gentleness and a relief at the end of it.
I haven't seen a Hindi film in a long time that has this dark comedy tinge. Was it difficult to bring it to life?
It was a challenge because at no point did we wish we were taking a topic like domestic violence lightly or thinking it in a comic manner. Whats light and whats comic-related is only these characters and their world and the things that theyre doing and saying so you have a certain light reaction to that. I love the setup and the realness that theyre experiencing, but also a certain optimistic escapist world.
To have romance and comedy and action and drama in a mixed genre is fundamentally so Bollywood. This feels different.
The reason why this film differs from a regular song-and-dance or regular happy story is because the structure has been broken a little bit. It starts off super intense and then becomes even more intense and then suddenly becomes really light again and suddenly becomes light again. That's just the play of the dark comedy genre, which allows you to break the structure.
Was it more from the script or from directing and actually putting it together?
It was all written. It was written, and we may have even improved it on set.
Do you have a favorite moment when comedy comes in to punch the drama?
I love the moment when they sit and talk about what to do next. She starts off by asking for tea, but she's not happy with the fact that she has only basic home essentials. The mother is really suggesting that they take a suitcase and they cut him up. It's funny to us because of how bizarre and splintered out everything sounds.
That mother-daughter bond is so wonderful and so central to the film. How did Shefali Shah get to grips with that and where did you take it?
When we were on set, something just clicked, but the majority of it was in the script. The subject is domestic violence, and there is a powerful message for women and for people who may be in the same position as the protagonist, but at the end of it, you really are left with these two people and their beautiful relationship, and their evolution.
Tell me more about the script and how it distinguished yourself from others you have read.
I realized that I did not have the time to complete a new picture when I heard the narration. My dates were planned out for about two years, but I believe that you never know what happens, and thats exactly what happened. The general strokes were so unique that we went into the depths and the details and enhanced it while we were locked up at home. That was a great time for us to go deeper into the script.
I feel that even with your more commercial films, you choose very unique films. What do you seek for yourself or tell your team to look for?
Everything I have to do by myself and discover by myself. What I look for are impactful, special characters that allow me to be myself, [different] from myself and from the players that Ive played in the past. But the music and the musical quality of Hindi films are something that will never leave Hindi films, and should never leave because that's the reason why we have become such a global force.
I believe music is very important to me, but it isn't just for the time being. There must be a reason for it. But it's a celebration of the films we create and I'm quite ecstatic when films like that come my way. I love shooting songs. Whenever I don't shoot a song for a long time, I'm just lost.
Are you like, OK, let's take a break after shooting a song?
It's so rewarding.
As an actor, you've shown such flexibility, so what does your future hold?
I want to do an out-and-out comedy. I have done a 60 percent dark 40 percent comedy I want to do, like an out-and-out laughter riot.
This film, which deals with domestic abuse, has a serious component.
When you hear stories like this, your thoughts are immediately affected. Millions of them happen even today in our country, and it just makes me so sorry. There's a tendency that's set in that this is something that happens in every marriage, Oh, it happens with everybody. But then it gets to a serious, really troubling point, and why should it continue to exist?
It's too much pressure, and it's a societal structure that has been created. If you're in a good relationship with somebody, please celebrate it, have fun, and have a great life; if you're not, then you'd rather be alone than in a ruthless situation. We need to keep making connections.
Badru's mother has a line about not being on Twitter, and she thinks it's vital that she's middle class. What do you think helps people to see the film and understand it better?
If you say something and youre making a distinction, right? We cant be debating whether or not this is correct or wrong on Twitter or on Instagram, but I am actually coping with it. It's not as easy for the people who are actually dealing with it because they do not have the luxury to sit and talk about it on Twitter.
And, at the same time, how do you think it may be perceived by those who are very much in that sphere, who are more upperclass or online?
They may just be delighted that these are women who come from a certain middle class or lower middle class background, but they are really taking matters into their own hands, and really reaching a point of great discovery. It's an interesting game of what's right and wrong and black and white, and in most beautiful, rich homes, you'd be surprised by the level of regressive thinking and patriarchal handling of situations like this, where the reputation in society matters far more than what you're actually going through.
Badru is a fascinating character with many shades, what would you describe her?
Badru is an eternal optimist. She believes that the worst people can change, and that the greatest people are actually the best but they just aren't aware of it yet. She is an eternal optimist. But her optimism and her naiveness are the one thing that keeps her from doing super bad things and allows her to keep her goodness as a person.
I keep thinking about the red dress and the heels. What does it represent to her?
She's just trying to be likable to her husband because she wants to have a baby, so she goes out there and buys this beautiful dress that she knows will work out this time. It's definitely going to make a huge difference this time. She's always faced with disappointment, and she continues to take it in her stride.
The film does such a superb job of documenting the cycle of abuse, the ups and downs, and repetition. How is it possible to depict that, both to sit in it and to not make the film repetitive?
The repetitive nature is required to be able to finally feel relief when there is a shift in the dynamic. The relief will only come if it feels a bit like, Once again? That is important, so in a sense, it's good that there is a certain fatigue that sets in with her being stuck in a loop.
It's interesting to see how Aunty downstairs sees the world around her.
She is used as a means of removing from the violence, and she [becomes] a perspective. I love that moment where he is actually the one who is at the receiving end of the torture and she still is assuming that it's the woman. It's subtle commentary on how you dont expect it to be the other way around. I love how she [shows up] in the end, and even though she's seen what happens, she doesn't say anything. I know.
I have to inquire about Hamza, who the film never transforms into a cartoon villain. He is very real. How was it bringing that to life with Vijay?
Vijay and Jasmeet's relationship is a total success. They pushed hard to make the character not appear as a cliche drunken husband. They had to make it genuine and real.
Netflix is now offering Darlings.