An exchange between Hamza and Badru, the central characters in Netflix’s latest film, Darlings, set me on the path of writing this essay. But before I begin dissecting the scene and parts of the film and my life, a fair warning: There will be spoilers.
The brilliantly crafted scene caught me off guard in a way it shouldn’t have. “Main kamina hun mereko malum hai, lekin mera pyaar kamina nahi hai.” I am cruel but my love for you isn’t, says Hamza, played by Vijay Verma, to Alia Bhatt’s Badru. Right before this conversation, Badru has decided to file an FIR against Hamza, her physically abusive husband. She has come to bid him goodbye, khuda hafiz. But if you’ve watched the film, you know Badru is not the kind to give up hope. She hasn’t just come to say goodbye. In fact, she is hoping the fear of prison will bring about a change in Hamza. He will reform, he will stop beating her, he will become the loving husband he is without alcohol.
If I didn’t love you, would I beat you? If you didn’t love me, would you tolerate it? he says, and Badru’s face changes from stern to confused to almost empathetic. Hamza is admitting his cruelty. Hamza is saying he will change. Hamza is going to give her a child, something she desperately wants. Hamza doesn’t want the child to be like his baap, so the drinking will stop.
She has heard this so many times. And every time he has failed her. When this scene was being played, my brother, who was watching the film with me, casually remarked, “Man, look at how he is gaslighting her?” I looked at my brother, puzzled, and it dawned on me that that’s what Hamza was doing. Why did I not think of this on my own? Why did I think Hamza was actually apologetic, remorseful?
A little bit of the answer can be found in the movie itself. There are cues in a conversation between Badru and her mother Shamshu. Shamshu narrates a story to Badru. A frog is sitting idly by a river bank when a scorpion comes and asks him to get him across the river. The frog says no, you will sting me. The scorpion says if I do, you and I will both drown. Why would I do that? The frog accepts the reasons and asks the scorpion to hop on. When they are in the middle of the river, the scorpion stings the frog. When the frog asks why would you do that, he says, because that’s who I am.
The moral of the story, for me, wasn’t that Hamza is the scorpion who would bite Badru because that’s his nature, but that Hamza, like the scorpion, really thinks he has it in him to control his impulses. If you are wondering what gaslighting has to do with this story, hear me out. The scene plays out so brilliantly, not because you know Hamza is being diabolical. But because he believes that he can change. Badru, even though fully aware of Hamza’s scorpion-like nature, believes this too. She knows she will be proven wrong, but she hasn’t yet accepted that. The film is about Badru’s journey to the realisation that she needs to leave behind the fear she feels in her heart, the fear of being abandoned by Hamza. For that, she needs to first stop abandoning herself.
Badru and Hamza’s marriage has too many highs and lows for Badru. One minute Hamza is hugging her, the next minute he is choking her. This confusion, this constant turbulence keeps Badru trapped.
In my 30-something years, I have experienced physical and emotional abuse. As a child, I was assaulted and raped for years. When my grandmother found out, she didn’t do anything. I was not taught to stand up for myself. I wasn’t told this was an assault. My assaulters told me it was love. Love and violence became intertwined in my head.
When I grew up and got into a serious relationship, my partner emotionally abused me. Even as I write this, I think the way Badru did in the film. He loved me. He didn’t mean to hurt me. But the fact is, he did hurt me. When he cheated on me and told me it was because I was failing to pay attention to him, he was gaslighting me and wasn’t allowing me to access the rage I should have felt. This was a repeat occurrence. In our relationship, each time I stood up for myself, I hurt him. So, I stopped “hurting him” and started putting everything aside, until there was nothing left to put aside.
The tricky part of understanding emotional abuse is the easy binary that gets formed in your head. The nuance that a person is neither all good, nor all bad, that a person can be good to others and bad to you is hard to accept. In Badru and Hamza’s case, everyone knows how Hamza is to Badru. But she can’t leave him because she is terrified of abandonment. She is terrified of life beyond Hamza. She has no idea what that looks like.
In my last therapy session, I discussed this scene from Darlings. I told my therapist that I am ashamed that I couldn’t, once again, recognise gaslighting. And she told me you are constantly abandoning yourself. How will you recognise anything if you don’t pause to hear yourself out? You take all your major steps as the last resort.
I left my partner as a last resort. But because life is not a neatly wrapped film, the scars of the years of emotional abuse still interfere with my decisions. It’s not about my partner anymore. But about everything else. I am still learning to fully trust myself. It means there are many setbacks to come. But I know that, like Badru, I too am on a path to recovery.
Indurkar is a writer, poet, and the author of It’s all in your head, M.