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Darlings Is Great, But What If It Didn’t End The Way It Did? And What Does It Say About Us As A Society?

Darlings makes some excellent points about domestic violence . For such a movie to not follow through with a resolution that won't be problematic, is disappointing.

I watched Darlings last weekend, staying on top of its release on Netflix. It was a long-awaited respite from the recent flicks. I wanted badly to jump into its praise and will praise it, for something has to be said for the powerhouse performances it is packed with. But I will not be able to in a way that I really had wanted to.

I wanted to say that this is a must-watch on domestic violence that I stand behind and a needed and nuanced social portrayal. But unfortunately, I can’t. For I found Darlings to be deeply problematic when it comes to the portrayal of domestic violence and how that should be dealt with.

The brutal reality of married Indian women’s lives

Before we rush to the ‘you must be having a problem because a man was hit’ or ‘much worse happens to women’ conclusions, that is not what my issue is. I have seen the praises and criticisms, and the criticisms of criticisms. I know, from having had close associations with non-profits and activists who fight domestic violence not just in India but globally, that much worse happens to women. I have written a book with case studies and statistics on that. Neither do I have any moral qualms around violence getting tackled with violence (that will be another post some day).

My issue is around the portrayal that when in such situations, even with a supportive network (including parental support which is often rare in domestic violence deaths, especially in India), access to law and order and a supportive community, violence and murder is shown as the only way out of domestic violence. Not just shown, it’s emphasized. 498A is talked about and pursued yet not pursued. Law enforcement is aware yet not persuasive. Separation is outright ruled out. It is made to appear that unless you kill or get killed, there is no way out.

Now, absolutely, that is the reality of many women.

There are many staying in dense communities yet not having anyone intervene until they are burnt to death. Financial dependence and lack of family support and having nowhere to go to leaves women dead all the time. Law enforcement refusing to take cases (which can be for a multitude of reasons – from husband and husband’s family’s influence to a mindset of not believing the victim) causes women to feel helpless and out of options.

But that’s not what is shown in Darlings.

A married woman who had parental support, police support, community support, yet…

Darlings somehow manages to create a softer, friendlier climate, yet has a protagonist (or rather protagonists as revealed in the end) who believe there is no other way out. The whole concept of wanting respect back and that being possible by not taking the legal route but by either gallantly letting the perpetrator go free (and then thank an act of God), or by hitting and killing him. No counselling, safe home, help lines, or middle ground. The legal route however, is shown as quite feasible earlier and would be a viable route given the dynamics portrayed.

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This battered wife syndrome (or battered wife syndrome like) reaction is often the route shown in movie portrayals of domestic violence. But unlike Provoked (which is in turn based on real events), the reality of the survivor is quite different here. With a supportive mother, a community that’d stand by, law enforcement who would believe her, and enough evidence in her arsenal, it would have been a much more realistic (and socially powerful) of a message for Badru to seek legal resolution with a police complaint. Even if she had had to react with violence as immediate aftermath, the later could have been different.

Why is the onus of ‘forgiveness’ always on the woman?

Even more problematic is the messed-up portrayal of self-respect and identity. Letting her spouse go free, without consequence even for the killing of her unborn girl child, is shown as grace and the alternative to killing him. The onus of forgiveness and being a bigger person followed the age-old narrative and fell on the woman, even in a women centric movie.

What if Badru would have fought for, or at least had mentioned, justice and due consequences? A truly confidence inducing ending could have helped thousands of women. This is not victim blaming, this is a plea for victim empowerment. This is what destroys the second half of a movie that has a brilliant first half.

And I suspect that it was the pressure of trying to make it a comedy, that does so.

Some themes shouldn’t be a ‘comedy’

That is my second beef with the movie.

Like late age pregnancy or homosexuality or same sex marriage, domestic violence where a woman has lost a child and had been almost killed cannot and shouldn’t be made into a comedy. The effort to do so feels forced in the second half and would have tanked miserably if not for the strong performances.

Now, I realize I am dangerously close to being one of those who try to make movies be a certain way.

I understand that this is entertainment and fiction, and not a documentary. And although I do believe that some movies are extremely problematic and need to be reminded that there is a social cost (Kabir Singh comes to mind) of their messaging, Darlings is not one of those. I am not forcing moral obligations on how things are portrayed. Nor am I trying to dictate how Darlings should have ended. I am merely expressing my disappointment with a movie that does do a great job with some of the messaging around domestic violence:

  • It’s not the alcohol (or drugs, or a job, or a disease), its him
  • This doesn’t change
  • The portrayal of trauma bonding and the hopelessness of hope
  • The fact that there’s not much that can be done even when neighbors and the police are aware if the victim doesn’t seek help and pursue action
  • And lastly, Love, its existence in the most damaging of ways possible, and that the assertion that love can’t fix everything.

I have had domestic violence victims share with me that there is a lot of love that they feel towards their abuser, and they trust that their abuser loves and needs them. I believe them. Love is not defined and exists in all forms, and in parts. But the point is, that doesn’t matter. Loving from distance needs to be a concept and sanctity of life needs to come first. Darlings does make this and the other points and does so brilliantly. So, for such a movie to not follow through with a resolution that won’t be problematic, is disappointing.

Hamza, once released and now further enraged, curses and threatens to make Badru’s life miserable. He threatens to stalk and much more. We all know how strong stalking laws are in the nation, what would have happened to Badru, and even her mother, if Hamza hadn’t been killed by an act of God? It is time that we think about that as a society. For most victims, such acts don’t come to their rescue.

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About the Author

Tanushree Ghosh

Tanushree Ghosh (Ph. D., Chemistry, Cornell, NY), is Director at Intel Corp., a social activist, and an author. She is a contributor (past and present) to several popular e-zines incl. The Huffington Post US ( read more...

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