Editor’s Note: This story contains some spoilers for Netflix’s “Darlings.”
Netflix’s “Darlings” contains a hazard warning.
At the film’s end a title card says, “Warning: Violence against women is injurious to health.” It’s a lesson learned firsthand by Hamza (Vijay Varma) when his wife Badru (Alia Bhatt) holds him hostage in their own home after years of domestic abuse.
Directed by Jasmeet K. Reen and written by Reen and Perveez Sheikh, “Darlings” arrives at a critical moment for South Asian audiences. In July, photographer Sania Khan was found dead in her Chicago apartment in what police ruled to be a murder-suicide perpetrated by her husband after years of abuse. On the same day that “Darlings” screened at a Manhattan theater, domestic abuse victim Mandeep Kaur was found dead in what is now being investigated as a homicide.
Both cases have sparked conversations about domestic violence and stigma in South Asian communities — stigma against speaking out, 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 make audiences think. The star and first-time producer spoke with IndieWire about this dark comedy film, its potential impact, and bringing Badru’s story to life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: This is your first time producing. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
Alia Bhatt: It’s been a massive learning experience. How it came about was I reached a point where I was looking at scripts and films from a much larger lens — not just as an actor, [but] thinking about what kind of movies would I like to produce — basically put together content for the world beyond the content that I see myself part of. To set up my production house I needed to first [star in] a movie [and] I would need to produce that as well. Very casually, very naturally, “Darlings” came to me and it just felt like a very unique story to tell as a producer for the first time. I really like what it was trying to say. I really liked the fact that it was directed by a woman who was trying to make her film come together for quite a few years, so I was backing her content, giving someone new an opportunity.
As an actor, what drew you to it as a script?
I love how quickly it changes genre: Where [you’re] expecting a basic household story, and you think it’s going to be about something else, but then suddenly, you open up this Pandora’s box [of] different quirks in each and every character and how they’re trying to fix the situation but terribly failing, or how they’re trying to manage a stressful moment but it’s a comedy of errors. I like to balance of darkness with a lightness and a relief every now and then. I love movies with beautiful messages at the end of it.
I haven’t seen an Indian film in a long time that has that dark comedy tone. Was it difficult to bring that to life?
It wasn’t difficult. It was challenging because at no point did we want it to seem like we were taking a subject like domestic violence lightly or thinking of it in a comic manner. What’s light and what’s comic-related is just these characters and their world and the things that they’re doing and saying — so you have a certain light response to that. I love the set up and realness that they’re experiencing, but also a certain optimistic escapist world that they also have going on for themselves.
Balancing genres is fundamentally so Bollywood, to have romance and comedy and action and drama — but this feels different.
Why this movie is very different from a regular song-and-dance or regular happy story is because the structure has broken a little bit. It starts off super intense and then it becomes even more intense, and then suddenly it becomes really light and suddenly becomes intense again and suddenly becomes light again. That’s just the play of the dark comedy genre, which allows you to break the structure.
Did that come more from the script or from directing and actually putting it together?
It was all written. It was written and we just maybe enhanced it on set.
Do you have a favorite moment of where the comedy comes in to punch the drama?
I love the moment where they’re sitting after she’s tied him up and whacked him on the head with a frying pan, and mother and daughter are sitting and having a conversation about what to do next. It starts off by her asking for tea and she’s not happy with the fact that she has only green tea — just basic home things. She starts narrating this story about what their next plan should be and how they should proceed from thereon, and that story is so funny but it’s not really funny if you think about it. The mother is really suggesting that they take a suitcase and they cut him up. I love that scene as a balance of drama because it’s this post-traumatic incident, but it’s funny to us because of how bizarre and whacked out everything sounds.
That mother-daughter relationship is so wonderful and central to the film. How did you in Shefali Shah develop and land on that?
Something just clicked when we were on set, but most of it was in the writing. When I finished reading the script, I was like “‘Darlings’ is a mother-daughter story.” The backdrop is domestic violence, there’s a powerful message for women and for people who are maybe suffering from the same situation that the protagonist is, but at the end of it, you really are left with these two people and their beautiful relationship and the evolution of their relationship. Even the revelation at the end of the movie of the mother is so poignant, so layered.
Tell me more about the script and how it stood out from others you’ve read.
When I heard the narration [of the script], I actually did not have the time to take on a new film. My dates were planned out for like two years, but I’m somebody who believes that you never know what comes your way and you never know what window opens up, and that’s exactly what happened. I heard the narration and I was like, “Oh my god, this is so unique and I have to do it.” The script was all there. The broad strokes were so unique that we really went into the depths and the details and enhanced it whilst we were locked up at home. That was a good time for us to go deep into working on the script, and we did that.
Even with your more commercial films, I feel like you choose very unique projects. What do you look for or tell your team to seek out?
It’s something that I have to do by myself and discover by myself and nobody else can get that for me. What I look for is is impactful, unique characters that allow me to be another person, [different] from myself and from the characters that I’ve played in the past. But the songs and the dance and the musical part of Hindi films is something that will never leave Hindi films and should never leave because that’s literally the reason why we have been such a global force: Because of the music and because of that nostalgia that you feel when you hear a song.
That is very important to me, but it’s not just for the heck of it now. It’s not like you just put in a song there because we need a song. There has to be a reason for it. But it’s a celebration of the movies that we make and I feel quite thrilled when films like that come my way. I love shooting songs. Whenever I don’t shoot a song for a long time, I really miss it.
And then after you shoot a song are you like, “Okay let’s take a break?”
No! It’s so rewarding.
You’ve shown such range as an actor, so what does the future look like for you?
I wanna do an out-and-out comedy. I’ve done a dark comedy which is like 60 percent dark 40 percent comedy I want to do like a 90 percent comedy 10 percent emotion sort of movie, just like an out-and-out laughter riot.
Obviously this film has its serious side, addressing domestic violence.
It’s extremely disturbing, shattering, unfortunate, necessary, all the words that come to your mind when you read stories like this. Millions of them happen even now in our country, and it just makes me really sad because it makes me feel like there’s an attitude that’s set in that this is something that happens in every marriage, “Oh, it happens with everybody.” But then it gets to [a] really, really disturbing point and why let it get to that? There’s also certain fear and taboo or stigma attached to people being alone, or people not being in a marriage or not being in relationship or not being divorced. That should not happen, not anymore.
It’s too much pressure; it’s a societal structure that has been created. If you’re in a happy union with somebody then of course celebrate it, have fun, live a great life — but if you’re not, then you’d rather be alone than in such a troubled dynamic. We need to keep having that conversation. Cinema is one of the best mediums to [state] a point and reach out to people, and touch a chord with them emotionally and mentally.
I think it’s so critical that Badru is middle class — there’s a line her mother has about not being on Twitter. How do you think that helps people access the film and understand it better?
They relate to it, right? If you say something and you’re making that distinction: Maybe I’m not on Twitter and Instagram, and I have a lot of real problems and real issues going on — we can’t be debating whether this is right or wrong on Twitter, on Instagram, I’m actually dealing with it. It’s not as easy for the people who are actually dealing with it because they don’t have the luxury to sit and talk about it on Twitter.
And at the same time, how do you think it can be viewed by people who are very much in that sphere, who are more upperclass or online?
They would possibly just enjoy that these are women who are maybe coming from a certain middle class or lower middle class background, but they’re taking matters into their own hands and really reaching a point of great discovery. It’s an interesting play of what’s right and wrong and black and white, and actually everybody’s really grey. But a lot of times, in the most educated homes and in the most fine, rich homes, you would be surprised at the level of regressive thinking and patriarchal handling of situations like this, where the reputation in society matters way more than what you’re actually going through. You may think that upper-middle class or super rich households will never have this issue, but you’d be surprised.
Badru is such an interesting character with so many shades, how would you describe her?
I think of Badru an eternal optimist. She’s someone who really believes that the worst people can change and that the best people are actually the best but they just don’t know it yet. She’s an eternal optimist. She thinks that a lot of changes [are] possible. But her optimism and her naiveness is actually the one thing that holds her back from doing super bad things and maybe makes her retain her goodness as a person.
I keep thinking about the red dress and the heels. What does that represent to her?
She’s just trying to be desirable to her husband because she wants to make a baby, so she goes out there and she gets this beautiful dress that she calls “frocks.” Again, she’s so sure that her solutions are the solutions and that it will definitely be worth it this time, and it’s definitely going to make a big difference this time. She’s always met with disappointment, and she still takes it in her stride. That’s quite heartbreaking.
The film does such a good job of capturing the cycle of abuse — the ups and downs and repetition. How is it to depict that, both to sit in it and not make the film repetitive?
The thing is, the repetitive nature is needed so that you can finally feel relief when there is a shift in the dynamic. The relief will only come if it feels a bit like, “Once again? Are you serious?” That is important, so in a sense it’s good that there is a certain exhaustion that sets in with the repetitive nature of her being stuck in a loop.
It’s interesting watching through the eyes of the parlor aunty downstairs.
She’s used as a device to cut away from the violence, and then she [becomes] a perspective. I love that moment where actually he’s the one at the receiving end of the torture and she still is assuming that it’s the woman. It’s subtle commentary on how you don’t 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 because she’s like, “I’ve got you. I know.”
I have to ask about Hamza, who the film never makes into a cartoon villain. He feels very real. How was it bringing that to life with Vijay?
That’s a total Vijay and Jasmeet dynamic. They worked at it really hard, they prepped how they would make the character not come across as a cliche drunken husband. They needed to make it natural and believable and real.
“Darlings” is now streaming on Netflix.