If we begin to list out every misogynistic movie Bollywood has made, the list would be endless. Some are films that engage in casual sexism, some use women only to populate the set, and then there are your overtly violent, misogynistic films. A lot of these films are made, released and consumed without much thought. When women occasionally take issue to such films, their concerns are readily and summarily dismissed.
But when the tide turns, when women finally have agency in a film, there is widespread outrage.
Alia Bhatt’s Darlings, which released on Netflix on August 5, has caused massive outrage because Bhatt’s character in the film, Badru, a victim of domestic violence decides to reclaim her agency and fight back against her abuser – her husband Hamza (Vijay Varma) – with the help of her mother (Shefali Shah) and friend (Roshan Matthew).
There have been calls to boycott the film and to cancel Alia Bhatt. Criticism of the movie has followed a common theme – the movie makes a mockery of male domestic violence victims and encourages violence at home against men.
Except it doesn’t.
For more than half of its run time, the film sees Badru being abused by her husband. Every time Bhatt is on screen, she is bleeding or bruised. Hamza’s violence isn’t just limited to Badru – he physically assaults her mother and causes Badru’s miscarriage. But those outraged by the film don’t seem infuriated by any of the violence endured by the women in the film – their outrage seems to only be reserved for Badru taking charge and fighting her abuser.
Films where women are abused are accepted without question, but when women take back their agency, we can’t seem to stomach it. Alia Bhatt is being called the ‘Amber Heard of India’ for merely acting in and producing a film where a woman isn’t the damsel in distress who needs saving. Badru isn’t the perfect victim, just like Heard. And both of their reactive violence is being mislabeled as mutual abuse, a misinformed term that is harmful to survivors of domestic violence.
While a lot of people have taken issue with the reactive violence in Darlings, Taapsee Pannu’s Thappad was criticised for taking a legal route to domestic violence instead. In Thappad, Pannu’s character, upon being hit by her husband, decides to file for divorce. The movie was deemed feminist propaganda and an attempt to break up families. Ironically, many suggested Pannu’s character should have just hit her husband and moved on.
In fact, on the flip side, violently misogynistic films like Kabir Singh were huge box office successes and well-received.
Be it Badru and her mother in Darlings, who engage in reactive violence, or Amrita in Thappad, who chooses to simply divorce her husband, the message is clear: women who don’t silently endure the abuse they are subjected to cannot be allowed to exist and neither should they be represented in popular media.
The notion of a woman with agency who decides to take action is unacceptable to a deeply patriarchal society. People who seem so deeply moved by a man facing the consequences of his violence, seem utterly unmoved by depictions of domestic violence against a woman for the better part of an hour in the same film. Women’s agency is a threat to patriarchy, which is why there is such outrage against the film. Further, the outrage can also be attributed to the film’s raw, unsanitised portrayal of female rage.
The film unabashedly relishes in female rage and indulges in it. When men rage, it is acceptable – we make movies about it, we write books describing it, and we even encourage and celebrate it in real life. But when women rage, they break the mould of what we expect a woman to be – silent and complicit. Women’s rage is demonised and the women yielding it have been called hysterical, crazy or unhinged for centuries.
Darlings depicts women’s anger in its full, unrefined force. And most importantly, this anger translates into action. Women’s rage is powerful in two important ways: it gives power to the yielder and it provides catharsis to the women who witness it. American author and activist Audre Lorde said that her response to racism is anger; Darlings makes the case for anger as a response to misogyny.
Soraya Chemaly in her acclaimed book, Rage Becomes Her, said that rage “alerts us to inequality and injustice”.
Women’s rage is symptomatic of the oppression and violence they face. Thus, Badru’s rage in the face of the injustices she faces isn’t an experience unique to her, it is the experience of all women – within the film and in the real world. And since this rage is a shared, collective experience, there is an unintended consequence of its depiction – catharsis.
For women who view the film, Badru’s rage and her agency don’t just make us feel seen and heard, it is cathartic. Badru’s actions against the violence by reclaiming her agency feels profoundly satisfying to viewers who have lost a lot to misogynistic societies that rob them of their personhood, autonomy and agency.
It’s very telling of who we are as a society that the question being asked is – why does Darlings feature a man facing consequences for violence against his wife? The question that should actually be asked is – why doesn’t a man being violent towards his wife with impunity not hurt popular sentiment or move viewers?
The unjustifiable and misogynistic outrage against Darlings, fuelled by the patriarchal need for controlling women and denying them agency, is a testament to the fact that Darlings is exactly the kind of film we need, now more than ever. Badru’s character isn’t aspirational – her life isn’t aspirational, only her agency is. Thus, Darlings threatens the impunity with which men carry out violence against women off-screen as well.
Akshita Prasad is a writer and student whose work mainly centres around feminism, law, and pop-culture.
Featured image: Netflix