In viewing the power of art, acknowledging the troubled times and pinning hope, that art–and only that–can make the world a better place, actor Huma Qureshi and filmmaker Deepa Mehta are on the same page.
The actor-director duo have collaborated on Netflix series Leila, which follows Shalini (Huma), a mother in search of her daughter Leila whom she lost one tragic summer.
Shalini deals with various hardships in the course of her search, in a story of longing, faith and loss.
Using dystopian setting, the series makes a commentary about an oppressive socio-political-religious order, environmental crisis, caste and class divide.
“It’s the only time to make art, absolutely,” Deepa told PTI on being asked if it is difficult to make art during troubled times.
Huma adds take any page out of the history, and it is riddled with strife.
“When has the world not been in turmoil? Pick any given time in history and there’ll always be turmoil, conflict and strife. It is through art and art alone that we try and make sense of our world,” the actor says.
Deepa, who has helmed topical films like Fire, Earth and Water, mentions Pablo Picasso’s iconic work ‘Guernica’, regarded by many as one of the most powerful anti-war paintings.
“When was it made? Right in the middle of the chaos… There is chaos all the time and I think some of the most interesting art is done in the time of chaos.”
Drawing a parallel with times of the ”unfortunate Nazi Germany”, Huma says the kind of books and films that came out from the period were incredible.
“I remember going to the Anne Frank House and reading what this little girl wrote many years ago. I was like these could just be somebody writing about what happened yesterday.
“Have we really learnt anything? Art is the only way humans keep reminding themselves, telling us and our kids the lessons we had learnt but are now forgetting.”
When pointed out that even Iran–despite its stringent censorship and government restrictions– routinely comes up with some of the best cinema, Huma says, “Maybe sometimes it’s because of it, not in spite of it.”
To which, Deepa adds, “It’s survival of the spirit… I’ve always thought of art as acquired rebellion.”
Co-directed by Deepa, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar, Leila is based on Prayaag Akbar’s book of the same name.
When its trailer dropped, it was flooded with comments criticising its ”anti-Hindu propaganda” and for being a “Hindu phobic series.”
When asked if it hurts that today the criticism of art has undertaken a serious religious tone, Huma says it’s too early to talk about that with regards to the show.
“There have been some comments, mixed comments. But the show is much more than that… Our show is about environment, the scarcity of water, and several other things.”
For the 68-year-old filmmaker, Leila is about “totalitarian governments.”
“I can’t take it to heart what somebody’s reacting to a three-minute trailer. It’s extremely premature,” the director adds.
While the series uses its dystopian setting, Deepa says it was impossible not to include what was happening around the world right now.
“We were doing a scene where the young child labourers are chained to their workplace. Just at that point, migration of children was happening from Mexico to the United States. They’d be kept in shelters, which were like cages.
“I absolutely insisted that we change the design of the structure into cages. So suddenly, what was happening in the migration centres got reflected here. It’s the leaking of what’s happening in different countries that affected me as a filmmaker.”
For Deepa, the curiosity on where the world is headed drives her to chronicle stories.
“What drives me as a filmmaker is curiosity. That’s what enables my work and makes me want to do films. I was very curious about Leila as it touches upon the world. I am very curious about where we are heading.”
Leila will start streaming from June 14.