The huge success of the 1991 Julia Roberts starrer, Sleeping with the Enemy, had set off a spate of films on the troubling issue of domestic violence. Though the film turned into an edge-of-the-seat slasher thriller, it had, at that time, lifted the veil around women forced to silently suffer in the hands of emotionally controlling abusive husbands, unable to get away.
In the 1990s, domestic violence was a subject that sparked a lot of angst and anger, as these abused women helplessly struggled in toxic marriages not able to voice their pain. Today, independent-minded, economically sufficient women may not understand and will find it absurd that a woman stays trapped in a physically abusive marriage (remember the recent Taapsee Pannu starer Thappad), hoping that life will get better. But in the 1990s, it was entirely plausible for women to think in this fashion (after all, the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act (2005) was passed only in October 2006 in India, after decades of lobbying by legal and women’s rights groups, following multiple drafts and instances of tabling).
In Sleeping with the Enemy, a beautiful Julia Roberts (fresh from her runaway hit, Pretty Woman) played Laura, the trophy wife of an investment counsellor, who has been abusing her throughout their marriage, isolating her from the outside world to further ensure his control over her mind and body. But, unable to take the torture anymore, she fakes her own death and runs off to small-town Iowa. However, some clues she leaves behind lead her cruel husband back to her.
Sleeping With the Enemy has been credited as one of the first contemporary Hollywood movies to tackle the topic of domestic violence head-on. Many domestic violence victims recognised the insidiously, coercive behavior that the husband in the film displayed and admitted to have identified strongly with Roberts’ character of Laura.
Released on February 8, 1991, the movie inspired similar stories of the wife running away from the proverbial ‘husband from hell’ and trying to build a new life and a new self. The film has been used as the template for such subsequent movies as the 2002 Jennifer Lopez film, Enough (on Netflix), and 2015’s The Perfect Guy, starring Sanaa Lathan (available on YouTube).
Aishwarya Rai’s Provoked
For Indians, the film Provoked, based on the true story of a Punjabi London housewife Kiranjit Ahluwalia, seemed closer home. After enduring 10 years of physical abuse, Ahluwalia (played by Aishwarya Rai), sets her husband on fire while he is sleeping. She is charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Despite evidence of repeated abuse by her husband (he used to enjoy pushing her down the stairs to prevent her from dressing like white girls), the law did not allow her to claim self-defence, as her husband was asleep when Kiranjit had set him on fire.
Nandita Das plays a female activist with The Southhall Black Sisters, a support group committed to help victims of abuse, who takes up Kiranjit’s case and convinces her to make an appeal. Three years after her arrest, Kiranjit is finally freed by the British judicial system, and her case becomes a landmark one because it redefined the word “provocation” for battered women seeking justice in courts. It helped widen the legal options available to victims of long-term abuse.
This 2006 movie directed by Jag Mundhra had a lot of shortcomings and did not get great reviews but the story itself was powerful and the film was engaging. Provoked is available on Zee5, Eros Now, Jio Cinema and Apple TV.
In India, films which included domestic violence (quite the norm) in popular cinema is spliced with loads of high octane emotional drama ending largely with a repentant husband falling in line.,But recent memorable films that effectively highlighted the horror of domestic violence are Secret Superstar (Netflix) and Leena Yadav’s Parched. In Secret Superstar, the woman is empowered by her daughter to finally walk away from her violent husband.
Darlings gives a new twist
Alia Bhatt’s Darlings, however, is a quirky take on this serious issue and turns the topic on its head strongly, pushing for a tit-for-tat approach.
The film follows a young, lower-class wife Badrunissa (Alia Bhatt), who remains in love with her alcoholic husband Hamza (Vijay Varma), even though he beats her up at the slightest provocation. She finds excuses for him since her husband always apologises the next morning and cajoles her into succumbing to his charms.
Her mother Shamshunnisa (the delightful Shefali Shah), living in the same Byculla chawl in Mumbai as her daughter, advises her to get rid of him. But Alia wants a baby with her husband and tries to reform him but when her life does not change her patience snaps.
Eventually, Badru and her feisty single mother Shamsu decide to give Hamza a taste of his own medicine and Shamsu takes the help of Zulfi (Malayalam actor Roshan Mathew), a writer who makes ends meet by selling stolen goods.
When escape doesn’t suffice
New-age directors like Jasmeet K Reen (it’s her first full-length feature film) clearly want to hand over a weapon in the abused woman’s hands to hit back. To give her the opportunity to get rid of the anger and disappointment within her. This is not about a woman who just wants to escape the hell and leaves her husband to piece her life back together again. Instead, keen to live up to the offbeat label, Darlings gets playful and is supposed to be funny to keep the audience entertained. But the funny twists don’t consistently work in a film that simultaneously adopts an instructing tone in the second half.
This film, produced by Alia Bhatt along with SRK’s Red Chillies Entertainment, started streaming on Friday (August 5), and is picking up mixed reviews. However, Alia, Vijay Varma and Shefali have done a fantastic job, lifting a somewhat wayward script.
And, Alia explained to the media why she decided to release the film directly on Netflix: “Darlings is not a large-scale, larger-than-life sort of spectacle, it’s an intimate, intricate story of all these characters and their lives and their journeys. So, I don’t mind where you watch it as long as you watch it.”
According to her, a film like Gangubai Kathiawadi had to be consumed in the theatre first because that has the style, it is a spectacle. “But, Darlings is not that kind of a film, I am not saying it negatively. I’m just saying that it’s an intimate watch. So, I don’t mind watching it by myself,” she added. Check it out.