A toxic marriage is rarely a story for humour. But Darlings does it so well, especially through the performances of Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah. Directed through Jasmeet K Reen’s gaze, the film wants women to punch past the abuse rather than negotiate with the scorpion, a euphemism used for the abusive husband (played by Vijay Varma) in the film. Shah plays a protective feisty single mother, Shamsunissa, to Alia Bhatt’s Badru in the film. Their relationship is the real spine of the movie.
*This article contains spoilers to the recently released film Darlings*
Shah’s Shamshu is wiser, more experienced and knows what men like Hamza are capable of. Her fierceness comes through her own experiences of abuse – especially in a scene in which she reveals her own past. Time and again she reiterates that some men never change, aware of how such noxious relationships usually turn out and sticks to her firm belief that the errant deserves to be put in his place. The drama that yields between the mother and daughter is muted, they talk through silences, and much is conveyed through eyes. The stories of everyday abuse, the frustrating anger of a plan gone wrong and lastly, a suppressed past reveal.
Shah’s wide and bottomless eyes convey so much and yet nothing. Shamshu’s cunning unpredictability comes through Shah’s mischievous gaze. The first comes early on when she, along with Badru, manipulates Zulfi (Roshan Matthew) into selling her a mixer-grinder at one-fourth the quoted price. The next is when she blames Zulfi for kidnapping Hamza in front of the police. But when he confesses his attraction for her, within a heartbeat, her gaze melts, a slight smile creeps at the corner of her mouth, and she talks the cop into believing that he’s innocent. Within the next minute, we see her kissing Zulfi, in one of the most radical, subversive scenes of Hindi cinema in recent memory.
Once the mother-daughter duo decide to turn the tables on Hamza by adopting an eye for an eye approach, a revenge is planned and put into practice but it isn’t governed by the conventions of the genre. However, Badru is little less mercurial than her mother and backs out last minute from their well-structured plan to kill Hamza. Cramped in the backseat of a van, Shamshu comes clean of her hidden past, no words are used and her teary guilt-ridden eyes convey a difficult flashback.
Suggested Reading: Zulfi And Shamshu In Darlings: Love And Desire Don’t Know Boundaries Of Age
Best Shefali Shah roles that capitalise on her emotive gaze
Shah has always thrived in silences with her glorious gaze at display. Take for instance Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film Juice. Shah powers the film about the gender politics of middle class Indian households. She emotes primarily through her expressions, makes light work of showing us her reluctant patience, her building frustration and eventual release, all while she attempts to be civil to her husband’s guests.
The 14-minute short is a stinging commentary of what every middle class Indian home looks like. A tired housewife cleaning up leftover bones of chicken from a table where drunk men are rambling about issues they know far less about than they think they do; the same housewife then filling water in an air cooler that services the men’s booze session; before she enters a steaming hot kitchen where the wives of the aforementioned men are helping her with, obviously, cooking. Throughout the short, Shah always looks like the kind of no-nonsense woman who may just grit her teeth and tolerate your bullsh*t but never for too long.
In Kayoze Irani’s short in Netflix’s 2021 anthology film Ajeeb Daastaans, Shah plays Natasha, a married woman who falls in love with a hearing-impaired photographer Kabir (essayed by Manav Kaul). Since her daughter and love interest in the film are both hearing impaired, she has little to no dialogue in the entire short. Minus all the noise and frippery, Shah brings a layered performance towering it with her silence and her sensual gaze. The end sequence is particularly telling of a heartbroken woman trying to save the dent in her marriage.
Then there’s Kanwal Sethi’s Once Again which explores romance between a middle-aged couple. Here, Shah soars in its moments of silence that heave with small intimacies. She plays Tara, the widowed owner of a Mangalorean restaurant who strikes a friendship with a divorced actor (Neeraj Kabi), who has subscribed to her tiffin service, over a chance phone call. The film hinges on her exploration of tentatively embracing her desires and yet struggling to reconcile with her guilt about loving someone other than her husband. Once Again enlivens even the unsophisticated moments the camera evocatively inspects, for instance the fleeting emotions of Shah as she feigns incomprehension when her kids accidentally intrude on her personal life.
And lastly, who can ever forget Shah’s soul-stinging performance in Dil Dhadakne Do? She is definitely the best part of the film, as a silently-suffering wife and a flawed-yet-loving mother. She is flawed because she doesn’t take a stand for her daughter, who is trapped in a loveless marriage and rebukes her when she demands for a divorce. Oh! Shah’s angry eyes in the scene can put the mightiest to a scare. She is flawed perhaps because she herself has forgot to respect herself and feels suffocated in a marriage-of-convenience. However, it is the scene where she crams desserts into her mouth as if to fill up an emotional void that leaves one aching, it makes you want to hug her and push her out-of-guilt.
Shah has come a long way from playing a mother to someone who is almost her age (Waqt) to now gallantly powering lead roles. In one of recent interviews, the actor confessed that she actually waited for the kind of roles she’s doing now. “It has been quite exciting, very exciting, and thank God, der aaye durust aaye. I finally feel seen. There was a director who took a chance and said ‘I’m going to put her in the centre of this’”, she told. Well it was about time, Shah and emotive gaze got its due.
Suggested Reading: Darlings: A Film That Inspects Complexities Of Domestic Abuse