Redefining masculinity: The dark side of Darlings
The article has been authored by Anita Anand, a development and communications consulant
On August 5, the streaming platform Netflix released the film Darlings, an Indian Hindi-language black comedy drama, co-written and directed by Jasmeet K. Reen.
In its opening weekend, it had the highest global opening for a non-English Indian film, with audiences spending more than 10 million hours watching it, according to a statement released by Netflix to the BBC. The film "is currently trending in the top 10 in 16 countries in the Americas, Africa and Asia including in the UAE, Singapore, Malaysia, Kenya and Trinidad and Tobago", it added.
What is the appeal of the film? Its protagonists are women, a mother-daughter duo that carry the film from the beginning to the end. The main theme is domestic violence and how the two women by deliberate and divine acts manage to come out winning. And there is comedy. Both actors, Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt are competent, well known, and popular with audiences.
The film portrays the life of a young Muslim couple, Badru, and Hamza, who married for love, living in a Mumbai settlement. Hamza works as a ticket collector in the Railways, drinks, and beats up his stay-at-home wife. Shamshu, Badru’s mother, lives next door, having raised her daughter by herself. She works at odd jobs assisted by Zulfi, a young man in the settlement. Zulfi, seeing the violence in the couple’s home, files a police report. There is a back and forth as Badru admits to the violence and then denies it. There is peace for a while. She gets pregnant. A few months later during a fight Hamza throws her down the stairs and she loses the baby.
Recovering, Badru plans revenge. In a series of tragi-comic incidents, involving Hamza’s workplace, the police, and neighbours, ultimately, he is tied to the railway tracks in anticipation of being run over by an oncoming train. Badru changes her mind, frees him. He threatens her and at just that moment, in an act of divine intervention, Humza is run over by a train. Badru learns that her mother too resorted to extreme measures to get rid of her husband, aided by the local butcher.
The film has been appreciated, as viewership suggests, but some working in violence against women and domestic violence have been critical of it, suggesting that the treatment trivialises a serious issue. But the purpose of a black/dark comedy is to make light of subjects that are generally considered taboo, especially if they are difficult or painful to discuss.
Domestic violence is when a partner physically, verbally, emotionally, and sexually abuses their intimate partner by exerting power and control over them. It is a serious issue in India, and globally. According to the BMC Women’s Health, a longitudinal research study showed that between 2001-2018 most domestic violence cases in India were filed under ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’, with the reported rate of this crime increasing by 53% over 18 years.
This would suggest that domestic violence in no laughing matter. But its treatment can be. “Comedy can play an important role in challenging people to address critical social issues,” says Lauren Feldman associate professor at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information. She adds that people often incorrectly assume that comedy – because it is funny and entertaining – is inappropriate for communicating about serious issues, or that it can serve as a distraction from important problems.
“However, our research shows that it is precisely because comedy is funny and entertaining that it is capable of engaging and motivating people around challenging issues. Comedy pulls people in and creates a positive emotional connection, which can, in turn, inspire engagement and action,” she says.
There has been engagement and action on domestic violence issues in India for several decades. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) was passed in the hope it would bring relief to millions of women. However, as with many laws, there were gaps in implementation including appropriate funding, preparation of state functionaries and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), delays in passing orders, and lack of clear directions to stakeholders about their roles and responsibilities.
Darlings, however, while showing Hamza’s violent tendencies falls short on exploring why he drinks and what makes him violent. Is violence entrenched in men? Is it part of their masculinity? Maybe and maybe not.
Masculinity, for boys and men is a set of attributes, behaviours, and roles socially created and influenced by cultural and biological factors. Psychologists Pellegrini & Bartini suggest that in early childhood, violence and aggression are used to express emotions and distress. Over time, aggression in males shifts to asserting power over another, particularly when masculinity is threatened. Researchers Feder, Levant, & Dean have found that discouraging emotional expression and encouraging dominance and aggression could heighten the potential for boys to be violent in acts such as bullying, assault, and/or physical and verbal aggression.
New sociologies of masculinity have emerged, presenting gender as the product of relations and behaviours, rather than as a fixed set of identities and attributes. Led by the sociologist Raewyn Connell, it describes multiple masculinities shaped by class, race, culture, sexuality, and other factors, often in competition with one another as to which can claim to be more authentic. Connell and others argue that common masculine ideals such as social respect, physical strength, and sexual potency become problematic when they set unattainable standards. Falling short can make boys and men insecure and anxious, which might prompt them to use force to feel, and be seen as, dominant and in control.
Male violence comes from men’s social and political settings, the particularities of which set them up for inner conflicts over social expectations and male entitlement.
In the debate and dialogue on domestic violence the push for women’s empowerment has been key to resistance to the violence. But if empowerment is the autonomy of individuals (men and women) to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way and to access consciously choices available to them, then men are as disadvantaged as women. To move beyond their gendered roles as masculine and feminine has been equally difficult for both sexes.
Sometimes work to raise consciousness of boys and men on issues of masculinity has been seen as taking away from the emphasis on women’s empowerment. It doesn’t have to be this. Without addressing how men are unempowered by society’s expectations, there cannot be change. And that can’t be good for women either.
The takeaway from Darlings is a dark one. Do men have to die for women to live in peace? Is it true that men cannot change? Will women be empowered only if men are not around? In portraying the reality of domestic violence are we neglecting to understand the cause of men’s violence? The 134-minute film could have explored this.
(The article has been authored by Anita Anand, a development and communications consulant)