By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The first weekend in August saw two South Asian movies released on Netflix: “Wedding Season” and “Darlings.”
One, set in the United States, is a romantic comedy about the generation gap and biodata marriages. The other, set in India, is a dark comedy about marital violence that is not very funny. Both feature rising stars, and also old favorites, and it’s nice to see the latter getting more time in the sun. While “Wedding Season” is more enjoyable, “Darlings” is a brave film that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Both are worth a look.
“Wedding Season” stars Pallavi Sharda as Asha and Suraj Sharma as Ravi, two modern young people who “fake date” in order to get their Indian parents off their backs during the summer’s long calendar of weddings. The plotline is clichéd but manages to stay fresh and entertaining. Rizwan Manji as Asha’s father is hilarious. You will recognize him from the award-winning TV series Schitt’s Creek, among others.
Although he plays the “typical” father who goes along with the overbearing mother until the last second, then swoops in to encourage his daughter to follow her dreams or be herself or what-have-you, all the acting is natural and engaging throughout.
I would call “Wedding Season” the first true Hollywood romcom featuring South Asian actors if it wasn’t for the Bollywood dance routine at the finale. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dancing, but I was ready to be impressed if this turned out to be the frontrunner light romantic movie about Indian Americans that, for once, didn’t have one. It did survive the movie without breaking into dance (there was dancing, but nothing outside of what can be found at weddings in any tradition), but the movie makers couldn’t resist adding a full blown routine at the end. Sigh.
The movie’s theme seems to be happiness—how do we achieve it? The parents say that “all they want” is their children’s happiness. The children say they are already happy. But are they? Does happiness mean doing what your parents tell you? Asha’s sister, Priya, played by Arianna Afsar, is worried she’ll be the first to mess up a marriage in her family’s long lineage, being that she is marrying a white man (Sean Kleier as Nick) and the marriage was not arranged.
Or does it mean defying your parents, and not letting them “drown your inner voice?” Asha wants to be “independent” and do everything herself (having the absolute most understanding boss on the planet helps a lot with career success). She and her sister both think that their nontraditional “Western” lifestyles, their partying, or that Priya lives with Nick, is all not “okay” with their parents (who already know). Ravi prefers to be a DJ over the MIT tech startup path everyone wanted for him, and which is how his family portrays him to potential spouses.
There is a lot of disagreement on what makes a person happy but, in the film, it comes down to do you lie about yourself (or your parents lie for you) and possibly achieve your dream job/partner? Perhaps you’re not even sure what or who that is? Or do you be yourself (with the same uncertainty)? We know the expected answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.
As for “Darlings,” social media has exploded with men ranting that this movie contains “nothing but man haters.” The title is from the way that some Indian men call women “darlings.” To me, it implied an old-fashioned idea about relationships. “Darlings” follows Badru (Alia Bhatt), as she withstands her husband, Hamza’s (Vijay Verma) abuse, hoping he will change. Badru finally breaks, and takes revenge. This, according to detractors—who I doubt even watched it—make this a man-hating film.
I would ask, how much does a person have to love someone to put up with their bad behavior? There’s an old film that this reminded me of, “I Love You to Death,” also a dark comedy—except actually funny. “Darlings” is not funny. I spotted the moments that were supposed to be funny—Badru and her mom have a way of speaking with their eyes, and totally get what each other is saying, but when their mutual friend, Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), tries it, he fails miserably. Etc.
To me, it’s classified more as a horror film. How many women “endure” this? The lover who hits you, then coddles you. He is always in your space, trying to control you, but ultimately, he can’t. Badru, who goes through all the stages of an abused person, figures out that she keeps trying to get respect from Hamza, but “the respect is mine. Why am I asking for it?”
The mother, played expertly by Shefali Shah, begs her daughter to leave him. Of course Mom wants to kill Hamza—what parent wouldn’t? It’s painful to watch. What should be painful to men is how badly this man behaves. Certain folks can’t stand to see a woman take revenge. As soon as the man is the victim, everything he did beforehand is conveniently forgotten.
No one should be a victim of abuse. We should praise “Darlings” for facing hard truths. A film like this was inevitable given the amount of violence against women in India. Both Hamza and Badru are sympathetic characters, if you are a sympathetic person. They seem in love but are blinded by love or anger. He has a “demon” inside of him, he says. It’s not his fault. He drinks. He is abused at work—valid points—but that’s no excuse. “All couples fight,” he tells her.
During the movie, Badru’s mother recounts a fable we have all heard, though the characters change. In her version, there is a frog and a scorpion. The scorpion asks the frog for a ride and promises not to sting him, but of course does, and when the frog asks why—we all know the answer—the scorpion says, “because I’m a scorpion. It’s in my nature.”
Some people are scorpions. Not all people. And not all men. There are good men in the movie. The entire police force is engaged in stopping violence against women, and frustrated by Badru’s insistence on trying to work it out. If the movie has a fault, it’s that it didn’t get the mix right so yes, it’s possible to misread. Putting a sign at the end that effectively says, “men should watch out when they hurt women” was probably a bad move. There wasn’t enough humor in the movie for that sign to hit right, or to make Badru’s ending as the free woman satisfying. She should have been traumatized, but still moving on. That would have been a real triumph.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.