Deepa Mehta’s new and timely Netflix series Leila dabbles in dystopian storytelling, using a bunch of political and sci-fi tropes often encountered in Huxley, Bradbury, le Carré and Orwell’s writings.
Truth be told, there isn’t enough frame of cinematic reference available for this sort of a thing in India. Right from the show’s trailer to the chaotic finale it collapses into, there is, however, that plain-as-day Atwoodian flavour. Narrative, tonal and visual parallels from Hulu’s TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale leap out — only grittier, and without the odd pop song.
Actually, Leila does one better on that score. With ghazals of love and war by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, it baits nationalists of the kind that govern Aryavarta – the fictional hellscape where (co-directors) Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar set their dystopian tale.
The holy grail
Guiding the Huma Qureshi and Siddharth-starrer Netflix Original is Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 manuscript — named curiously after the holy grail of a more primal quest. It’s this quest that forms the subject matter of the book as well as the show, and even if Akbar brushes off the Gilead comparisons, the parallels are painfully clear – with the muted colours, red robes and conversations bookended by Hail Aryavarta.
Politically self-aware with no holds barred, Leila very cautiously and rather masterfully side-steps any direct mention of a political party or figure. But the undertone isn’t lost on anyone clued into what passes for politics these days — the Gandhian radio silence being a dead giveaway.
At this rate of regression, in 2047, the Taj Mahal will have been destroyed by revisionists, peace by segregation will have been achieved by brute force, journalists and academics will be silenced, the environment and women will be worse off. Riots will break out over drinking water, while militant vegetarianism will be the accepted norm.
The pure-born Arya will live in towering cities, below a cavernous dome that protects them from global warming and acid rain. While the rest are left to scrounge for literal scraps. The silver lining will inevitably arrive in the form of an underground resistance.
That is the basic premise. Given that such a metanarrative is more real than futuristic, it’s also worth recalling that the name of the show bears intonations of Leela and Laila, channeling a perfect union of Hindu and Muslim identities.
Colonised by gender and love
Picking up from the onslaught on inter-caste marriages, and the rampant sectarianism in Indian society today, Leila focuses on a woman’s journey through the political (and literal) wasteland to seek freedom and the road that leads her back to, in the protagonist’s own words, “her old life”.
You know, the one where a combination of apathy, hypocrisy and privilege makes it difficult to see beyond rose-tinted glasses and the façade of respectability? The show holds it responsible too, without sounding too pompous or self-righteous – but more on that later.
The primary plot builds almost entirely on Qureshi’s portrayal of Shalini Rizwan Chowdhry, a young mother battling unseen forces to reunite with her daughter, who is presumably inducted into a sinister government-sponsored experiment on lineage and mixed-blood children.
Overnight, Shalini finds her entire existence colonised by her gender and Islamophilia, in a technocratic world that reserves no place for a woman’s free will. In fact, very little matters in Aryavarta except for racial purity and safeguarding the rich.
Aryavarta is the central character
Aided by slick and bold art design replete with a lot of holograms, screenwriter Urmi Juvekar (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Shanghai) carefully and realistically constructs the dystopia of and around Aryavarta, filmed ostensibly in a city with a lot of history like Delhi.
Here, multiple strata of life exist under the cruel surveillance of autocracy, and Johan Aidt’s cinematography tinged generously in blues, reds, dust, and ashes captures the brute in its entire scope.
At the top of the human pyramid is Mr. Joshi (Sanjay Suri) whose name and portrait is omnipresent, but whom we see in person only in the show’s final ten minutes. At the bottom is Roop, a “doosh” who belongs to a backward class and has no place under the dome — and who helps Shalini find her humanity and way back home.
Somewhere in between is Bhanu. We all know Siddharth better from his tweets than his roles these days, and for good reason. But I must say I was mildly relieved to see him play an agent of Aryavarta (the subversion seemed to offer an odd satisfaction). However, that didn’t last. By the season finale, his Bhanu was making bombs in a gas mask, working with hackers in a shed, that oddly resembled a heavily stylized set from Israeli satire Foxtrot.
The first couple of episodes sets it up for the dramatic web of events that follow, as Shalini navigates the sectors, corridors, clinics and schools of Aryavarta to find Leila.
There are layers of conspiracies that she unfolds on the way – journalists executed over Project Balee, a racket selling off mixed children, resistance members being set up by spies.
Arming herself with the right allies and the zeal to do what it takes, Shalini escapes from the Welfare Centre, is taken away to the Labour Camp and later carves a place for herself at a politico’s residence — convincing herself Mr Rao (Akash Khurana) is the key to finding her daughter.
When Shalini finally appears before Leila – now Vijaya Yadav, she is unrecognisable to one who now identifies as an obedient daughter of Mother Aryavarta.
In many ways, the show is a mordant exploration of the herd mentality and brainwashing that is synonymous with totalitarian and polarising politics. The narrative holds a mirror to our inner intolerance, blinding conservatism, and the personality cult that often acts as a diversion for powerful men to get away with their crimes. In the midst of it all, Ayravarta festers like a sore and spreads its toxic ideologies around, suppressing anyone who stands in its way to complete dominion.
The Maid’s Tale
Having stuck it out with the awfully meandering second and third seasons of The Handmaids’ Tale, I knew better to expect a heavy-handed exploration of the maternal instinct.
In fact, there is a direct parallel between Elizabeth Moss’s June and Qureshi’s character who are both given the choice of meddling with the status quo to win their daughters back, and letting the child have an “ideal” life with a completely new identity.
I cannot say I espouse a female lead led solely by a personal quest (at least June became an active anarchist later) but Shalini’s actions to dismantle Aryavarta are perfunctory at best.
But whatever gives one purpose right? After all, the personal is political.
Committed to an exhausting heartbreaking harrowing search, Qureshi instills her Shalini with the revolutionary spirit and I like that she was not a born fighter, as her late husband (Rahul Khanna) seems to tell her in one of many imaginary conversations. There is not much we know about her past but her rage is honest and that comes off during the confrontations with her abductor and her brother-in-law (after his role in the tragedy emerges).
And yet, I feel deeply conflicted about backing her cause, because of the privilege and classism that so obviously blinded her in the past. Even if this wasn’t the intended effect, Shalini’s treatment of her domestic help, as seen in multiple flashbacks, makes for a complex social statement. And when Sapna (the maid) stages an unexpected return later in the show, you cannot blame her for the cruel role reversal.
Roop is Shalini’s redemption, according to me. Their journey of co-dependence through the fiery mound of trash that surrounds Aryavarta, are some of the show’s finest moments. It is in caring for her like her own daughter that Shalini realises she isn’t the only victim.
Necessary but mediocre TV
The show eminently fails to explore sexual violence and exploitation women that vulnerable sections of society deal with, whenever and wherever state machinery breaks down. Except for the verbal, medical and physical abuse at the welfare centre, there is very little evidence of that in the labour ghetto and purity camp. When Roop is revealed to have been purchased by some business executive later, her face sent a chill down my spine. But this isn’t taken up later.
Some of the syllogisms are a little reductive, others are sketchily developed and fall flat later, depending on your attention to detail. But it is the ending that left me a little flustered. The narrative until then is so gripping, it leaves one wanting for a more cataclysmic finale. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a show by its maiden season because so far, Leila’s bravery outnumbers the sum of its incongruous parts.
The show is a bolt out of the blue, and makes for necessary, urgent and compelling TV.
With two fingers pressed to my heart, Hail Netflix, for managing to make a political thriller without ruffling too many feathers. As a lover of all things Dickensian and dystopian, I cannot wait to see how season 2 forges ahead sans Akbar’s book. Hopefully with more screen time for Roop.
Leila is now streaming on Netflix.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.