Leila cast: Huma Qureshi, Siddharth, Arif Zakaria, Seema Biswas, Rahul Khanna, Akash Khurana, Sanjay Suri
Leila directors: Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman, Pawan Kumar
Leila rating: Three stars
It is the near future, not too many years from now. The air on the planet has turned noxious, water has vanished, and the rain is viscous and black, more curse than manna from heaven.
In the land of Aryavarta, there live the haves (manicured and gated enclaves, high walls, guards and dogs), and the have-nots (filthy slums, water tankers and poverty). The only currency that can save you is your purity quotient: the pure will survive and thrive, the ‘doosh’ or the ‘dooshit’ will be forever servile, and the ‘mishrit’ (mixed-blood) will be obliterated.
Based on Prayaag Akbar’s harrowing novel Leila, the new Netflix series, which has begun streaming Friday, serves up a chilling portrait of dystopia which is at once compelling and repelling.
The series makes some sweeping departures from the book. Some work; the others are not as effective. The book is slower, more ruminative, more affecting; it covers a longer span. The six episodes in Season One build up to a pacy dark near-thriller feel.
That may have been a deliberate choice by the creative executive producer Deepa Mehta, who shares direction credits of the six episodes in Season One, with Shankar Ramen and Pawan Kumar, and the team of writers. But the sense of foreboding and unease that mark this future time and place feel real, feel like they could be around the corner, that this could be where we will find ourselves sooner versus later.
And that, despite its problems, is the strong point of Leila, which takes its name from a lost young girl, and the search, long and exhausting and heart-breaking, that her mother, Shalini Rizwan Chaudhary (Qureshi), undertakes, to find her.
The double-barreled name bodes trouble. It speaks of a willful woman who married for love (the pure call it ‘lust’) and was so enamoured that she forgot her husband’s religion is not her own. A child born out of a Hindu-Muslim union will not be tolerated in Aryavarta, where the blandly sinister figure of Joshiji (Suri) towers over everyone.
It took me a while to get into the series. The initial bits remind you, disconcertingly, of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Shalini is forced to congregate with fallen ‘women like her’, as they wait for the attention of Guru Ma (Zakaria). And then, once Shalini is moved along the chain, lowered to the portals of hell, the plot starts to thicken. And take hold.
Qureshi’s face is in close up so often that you learn its contours. But her Shalini, despite some bumps, is always on point, her focus on getting her daughter back unwavering. Seema Biswas, who shows up as a compatriot who may be harbouring a secret, shows how good an actor she is: she doesn’t have to act as if she belongs to a labour camp; she just is. By comparison, Siddharth comes off stiff. There are some awkward threads that hang; some English-Hindi usage which doesn’t sound right.
But Leila’s powerful sum is more than its unequal parts. It takes us into a time where we will all live in ‘our’ communities, dissected neatly by religion and class and caste. Flyovers high in the air will link the gleaming towers, and the meek and the helpless will crawl on the ground, seething with rebels. Where women will breed to order, and where only the ‘arya’ by birth will be able to breathe clean air.
The resonances are clear, even if they get submerged in the swift thriller-like approach. Saffron is replaced by red, but there’s no doubt about what and who guardians like Joshiji are, and where they come from.
Those who live in Delhi will recognize many spots in the series. The dispirted Nehru Place market, lost in a jangle of computer part shops, had gone over to the dark side long back. And the mountain of garbage that towers on the outskirts of the Capital is a sight straight out of purgatory. Future? Dystopia is here.