“Darlings,” a dark comedy streaming on Netflix, tells the story of a woman’s fight against the violence she suffers in her marriage. While the movie has received positive critical reviews, it has also evoked outrage in India.
“Darlings” is about a young Muslim couple, who are in love and marry. But a few years into their marriage, this relationship becomes steeped in blood, violence, and vengeance. The woman is battered by her husband daily. However, she reaches a breaking point. With support from her mother, who is a survivor of spousal violence herself, she plots revenge against her alcoholic and abusive husband.
Intimate partner violence is rampant worldwide. According to a World Health Organization report, globally one in three women face gender-based violence, with intimate partners being the major perpetrators of such violence. Statistics for India signal a similar prevalence, with domestic violence being the most reported crime against women year after year. Many Indian women suffer terrible violence at the hands of their husbands and endure it endlessly to uphold the sanctity of marriage and in the name of family honor.
In 2020, Indian Police received complaints against domestic violence from 112,292 women.
A poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2018 ranked India as the most dangerous country out of the world’s 10 worst countries for women, followed by Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia. Another poll conducted by the foundation in 2011 placed India in fourth place. The surveys drew responses from respondents in countries where women were at extreme risk of sexual violence, harassment, and being coerced into sex.
In most situations of intimate partner violence, the woman is silent about the emotional, physical, and even sexual violence that she suffers. Rarely does she get the support of her family. Even if she tries to leave her husband to go back to her parent’s home she is usually sent back.
The protagonist in “Darlings” is a lot more fortunate. Her mother stands by her during her suffering from violence and later when she seeks retribution for that violence.
Worryingly, the number of cases of domestic violence seems to be growing in India. A study by a peer-reviewed journal, BMC Women’s Health, explored domestic violence suffered by Indian women in the 2001-2018 period. It revealed that most such cases are filed with the police under the category of “cruelty by husband or his relatives.” Such cases have increased by 53 percent over a span of 18 years.
The study drew on government data compiled by National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB). States such as Delhi, Assam, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, and Jammu and Kashmir witnessed a 160 percent increase in the number of cases of domestic violence between 2001 and 2018. Some states witnessed a fall in domestic violence against women. There was a 74.3 percent drop in such cases in Mizoram in India’s northeast during this period.
The problem of intimate partner violence is not restricted to women living in India. On August 3, Mandeep Kaur, an Indian woman living in New York, committed suicide. Minutes before her death, Kaur posted a video, where she shares images of the bruises she received from attacks by her husband, Ranjodhbeer Singh Sandhu, over a period of eight years. A weeping Kaur reveals Sandhu’s alcoholism and extra-marital affairs. Her in-laws didn’t help her, she said.
According to data provided by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), one woman of Indian origin living abroad calls back home every eight hours seeking help against spousal violence. According to the Economic & Political Weekly, the MEA received 3,955 complaints of domestic abuse from Indian women abroad between 2017 and 2020.
There is enough and more data to prove that the problem of women being traumatized in their matrimonial homes is widespread. However, this data relates only to those cases of domestic violence that reach police stations. Most women who suffer such violence do not take the matter to the police.
According to recently released NCRB data, 22,372 housewives took their own lives last year. The spike was attributed to the COVID-19 lockdown, where women were forced to remain in the confines of their homes with an abusive partner. This was an average of 61 suicides per day. Housewives accounted for 14.6 percent of the total 153,052 recorded suicides in India in 2020 and more than 50 percent of the total number of women who killed themselves.
Indian women are shattering the glass ceiling and breaking stereotypes in every field, including academia, sports, and even the armed forces. However, breaking away from the violence that is forced upon them by their spouse is far more difficult.
Both women and men are in the grip of patriarchal mindsets, which means they have internalized the notion that violence perpetrated on women is well deserved.
A recent Pew Research Center report on gender roles detailed that almost nine of ten Indians are of the view that a “wife must always obey her husband.” A national survey conducted in December last year found that 84 percent of women in Andhra Pradesh said it was okay for husbands to beat their wives if they digress from traditional roles.
In “Darlings,” the woman goes to the police to complain about the violence but receives no support. She then takes the law into her hands and subjects her husband to the kind of violence he had perpetrated on her earlier.
Not surprisingly, the movie has triggered anger and calls for a boycott of the film and of Alia Bhatt, the actor who plays the film’s main protagonist. People have accused the filmmakers of encouraging violence at home against men. Indeed, the film’s solution to domestic violence – retributive violence – is hardly the right way to go.
Still, audience responses to the movie underscore society’s double standards. When a woman takes matters into her own hands to fight violence and injustice, our patriarchal society is outraged. This signals how patriarchs view woman-beating as the norm and women avenging this violence as an exception that needs to be shunned and discouraged. Such a patriarchal mindset, which validates violence against women is contingent on the internalization of spousal harassment as the bedrock of marriage.