“Comedy makes the subversion of the existing state of affairs possible”: Dario Fo.
Humour has played a central role in various forms of art, theatre, music and poetry. The Commedia dell’Arte theatre form that originated in Italy in the 1530s employs masks to depict characters, where the peasant class uses physical comedy to mock the power of the upper class. The Social Grotesque movement in theatre in the 20th century used surreal comedy and dark humour to shock, unsettle and question society.
One of the significant examples of this genre was the play Ubu Roi. The play is a parody about the mad king Ubu, reminiscent of Nero playing the fiddle while Rome was burning. Written by Alfred Jarry, and first staged in 1896, it baffled the audience. In fact, the play outraged them to the extent that it was shut down after its opening.
What is so provocative or uncomfortable about humour?
On one hand, we love a good laugh, crack up on jokes, not to mention the mushrooming of laughter clubs. Yet, many creators of humour – stand-up comedians, cartoonists, film and theatre makers – are at best accused of ‘trivialising a serious issue’ or at worst face persecution.
When humour is inward-directed, self-deprecating, a slapstick or aligned with power, it is considered ‘safe’. When humour is used as a tool for empowerment, it is deeply unsettling. When it is used to subvert hierarchy and structures of gender, caste and class, it is often met with disapproval and bans.
This is much like how we are willing to accept the objectification of women in ‘item numbers’ but find it blasphemous to see the portrayal of a woman owning her sexuality.
Humour is that sharp sword, which when wielded can cut through our own assumptions, make us laugh at our own folly, question power and provide a voice to the voiceless.
A recent example of this is the Bollywood film Darlings, co-written by Parveez Sheikh and Jasmeet K. Reen. The main protagonists are essayed by actors Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah, Vijay Varma and Roshan Mathew.
The film opens with a night-time aerial view of southern Bombay, where Badru (Bhatt) alights at a bus stop. She has a bounce in her step as she buys two movie tickets, full of hope for a date with her boyfriend, Hamza (Varma). A quirky title song ‘Pleaj’ plays in the background while opening credits roll in the foreground.
After watching the film, it strikes you that the opening two-minute song and its visuals foreshadow the entire film. Badru waits in anticipation for Hamza, with tickets to a movie and holding two kulfis. As she waits, sometimes on the pavement and other times watching the night-time traffic, she eats her kulfi.
As Hamza’s kulfi starts to melt, Badru begins eating it, and halfway through we see a face hiding behind a pink teddy bear. Hamza is late, Badru flings away the half-eaten kulfi in anger, and begins walking away.
Why did she wait for him to arrive, just to begin walking away in anger?
Women trapped in abusive relationships or those who speak up much later about instances of violence are often asked this question. The film refuses a straightforward answer because there is none, and it unravels the structure of emotions among people in intimate relationships.
Hamza keeps pace with Badru on the pavement, and says, “I have said sorry na” (referring to the teddy bear he brought for her), without uttering an apology and tacitly dismissing her upset emotion. To his excuse of being delayed at a job interview, Badru quips that he is always attending interviews.
Hamza pauses and proclaims with confidence, “We will get married this year.” Badru understands that he got the job, and immediately feels happy for him, and for them. He repeats with greater confidence, “We are getting married,” and he quietly slips away the hair-tie that held her hair in a high ponytail.
This is how subtly her wishes to marry him are manipulated, by dismissing her emotions and maintaining control over something as inconsequential as her hairstyle. What could have been a scene of a marriage proposal, becomes a moment where her own wish is proclaimed to her, by stripping off her agency, at a time convenient to him.
The lyrics of the opening song, “I fall into his arms and become his prisoner … as days and weeks go by I become his jailbird,” are prescient.
Three years into their marriage, she is in fact his jailbird. Hamza is revealed to be an alcoholic who beats his wife every night, after drinking. Badru is afraid of the evenings, as anything might trigger his abuse – a shard of stone in the food, finding a stiletto in the house, Badru attending a neighbourhood meeting, her attempts to cure him of alcoholism or her close relationship with her mother.
Shamshu (Shah) is deeply aware of her daughter’s plight, and often urges her to leave him. Yet, she watches Badru’s agony, without denying or controlling Badru’s agency.
When the neighbourhood errand boy, Zulfi (Mathew), makes a police complaint on Badru’s behalf, Shamshu encourages Badru to register her statement of physical violence with the police. In a poignant moment, after Badru is gaslighted by Hamza and manipulated into withdrawing the police complaint, Shamshu narrates the story of the frog and the scorpion, saying it is in the scorpion’s nature to hurt and never change.
She alludes not to ‘all men’ or alcohol, but specifically to Hamza who has demonstrated over the years that he cannot change.
The film highlights in granular detail, the tragic reality of domestic violence faced by many women and the complexity of how one remains trapped in the cycle of abuse. The ‘cycle of abuse’ theory, developed by psychologist Lenore E. Walker, has been critiqued for its simplistic portrayal of violence or for its generalisations without adequate data.
However, it was revolutionary and important to understand interpersonal violence.
Darlings, unlike many other Bollywood films that deal with domestic abuse, accurately portrays this complex psyche of abuse – through phases of tension, violent incidents, reconciliation and gaslighting, and calm.
Due to the cyclical nature of this dynamic and the patriarchal subtext that enables toxic masculinity, many women confuse violence and control with love. The confusion caused by Hamza hugging her and professing his love, and in the next moment choking her, is the trap that keeps her as a jailbird in his arms.
Moreover, alcohol is often blamed for men’s abusive behaviours. However, the film takes its time to unravel in a slow and painful pace, through subtle bodily gestures and moments, that this issue – symbolised as a ‘disease’ in the film – runs deeper than substance use.
The final straw is when Badru is pregnant, Hamza suspects her of having an affair with Zulfi and that the baby is perhaps not Hamza’s. In a fit of non-alcoholic rage, he pushes her down the stairs, not waiting to hear her side of the story or truth. The unborn baby is aborted, along with all her hopes.
As long as she held hope that he might change – for love or for the child – she was able to reach out to her mother or wear her wounds without allowing others to influence her choice to stay. But when she found herself shattered, and all alone, she saw that the problem with Hamza’s violence was not because of alcohol or love.
At its core, the film is a story of the relentlessness of hope amidst shattered dreams, and how people who are intimately connected find themselves trapped in these cycles.
Badru’s hope despite a pile of disappointments drives her seemingly irrational faith in Hamza’s ability to change, for love. In fact, Hamza’s character is written with such empathy, that one may feel repulsed by his actions, yet he is not villainised.
The patriarchal power he symbolises is named a ‘disease’, and in the film he is as much a victim of oppressive power structures as anyone else.
As American writer Jessica Bennett says, “It is possible to both hold people accountable and be open to the possibility of change. But they must also show that they have evolved.”
Hamza’s inability to change, despite the many chances given, is at the heart of the tragedy that finds expression in the film’s turn to the darkness of comedy, after the hospital scene, where Badru sees the reality of her situation with clarity.
There have been many films that have used comedy to construct tragedy, Charlie Chaplin being a classic example. When it is used to build a character’s narrative, it not only makes the character human and layered but also provides the character agency to direct their narrative.
The rest of Darlings unravels in a mode of comedy, as Badru, with Shamshu and Zulfi’s support, aims to get back at Hamza. She ties him up, injects sedatives in his body, even attempts to ‘hit him back’. Despite the comic portrayals, the tragedy of her pain and betrayal seeps through the scenes.
The scene where Hamza is tied up, it is revealed that the sleeping pills Badru bought at the hospital were in fact for Hamza, and not to release herself from life. Badru tells her mother, “Fielding bahut ho gayi Ammi, ab batting shuru.”
When Hamza tries his usual gaslighting tactics, the pain of him robbing her of hope is evident in her response, “Pehli waali Badru yeh chaat leti.” Shamshu eventually asks Badru about her plan in a jovial way, “Toh feelings kab aayegi beta?” and Badru replies, “Pata nahin, Ammi.”
The use of dark humour in these scenes allows Badru to grapple with what it means to reclaim her agency or continue “batting” as it were.
The humour allows Badru to laugh at her own folly, humanising her and steering clear of the ‘perfect woman’ or ‘victim’ narrative. It becomes evident, too, that it is not a story of revenge, as she is not trying to exert power over Hamza.
Many Bollywood films have dealt with the trope of the wronged woman, who avenges her victimhood, by morphing into a figure of power. The goddess Kali is evoked in films like Anjaam (1994) or Kahaani (2012). Women in Bollywood are either wronged or revered, and their evocation of a power enables them to avenge, even to kill. But feminism is not misandry, and it is sad that it requires to be told and retold.
As the late American author and feminist bell hooks has said, “Feminism is for everybody.” Badru’s fight is for self-respect, and an agency without power. The film also presents men as victims of patriarchy, while simultaneously providing us with examples of healthy masculinity in their community – Zulfi and the silent butcher.
What several reviewers of the film got wrong was to label Badru’s actions as misandry or violent revenge. On the contrary, it is the structure of a misogynous world that renders one incapable of seeing the empathetic feminist politics in the film.
The serious issue of abuse and domestic violence are not trivialised by humour. On the contrary, the vehicle of dark humour enables the film to present complex humans, in all shades of reality – hope, despair, heartbreaks, vulnerability, fears, longing. Because of this, the narrative of the film does not slip into the binary of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’. It allows us to witness the tragedy of shattered dreams and violence.
Indeed, the woman is provided the agency in this narrative, to rise above her tragedy and reveal her humanity – her humour, her pain, her longing, and her arduous battle for a crumb of respect. The narrative is able to transcend the tropes available to women in most films, so she is able to exercise her choices, however ludicrous, without feeling ‘wronged’ or forced to ‘forgive’.
The film in that sense is a refusal of the narratives or tropes available to battered women, the popular discourse of feminism as misandry and a justification of the politics of revenge. Adopting the darkness of humour in tragedy enables us to imagine such refusals, and imagine a politics of deep empathy.
Ranjana Raghunathan is an anthropologist, and Spatica Ramanujam is a theatre practitioner. Both are assistant professors at Vidyashilp University, Bengaluru.