Release Date: 14 June 2019
Number of Episodes: 6
Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kanwar, Patrick Graham
Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman, Pawan Kumar
Genre: Dystopian Drama Fiction
About the Series
Leila is an Indian dystopian drama web television series directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar. Based on the 2017 eponymous novel by Prayaag Akbar, Leila follows the story of Shalini, who tries to find her missing daughter in a totalitarian regime in the near future. Written by Urmi Juvekar, it will star Huma Qureshi, Siddharth, Rahul Khanna, Sanjay Suri and Arif Zakaria. The six-episode series premiered on 14 June 2019 on Netflix.
In the forgotten margins of the segregated communities of a dystopian future, a woman searches for the daughter that she lost upon her arrest years ago.
Based on Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 English novel of the same name, Leila revolves around Shalini Rizwan Chowdhury nee Pathak (Huma Qureshi), an upper-caste Hindu who married Rizwan, a Muslim. Before rigid enforcement of segregation during the reign of the despotic Joshiji, they lived happily with their daughter Leila.
In the show’s opening scene set in the year 2047, Shalini (played by Huma Qureshi) is watching with affectionate indulgence as Riz (Rahul Khanna) and their little girl Leila frolic in their swimming pool. That the couple has a private pool is evidence of their wealth, as is the largeness of their house where the maid Sapna hovers in the background. This seemingly idyllic visual is disrupted by the arrival of violent intruders who rip the family apart. As a reprisal for their misuse of a scarce resource – water – but in truth for another reason. In this place known as Aryavarta where water is indeed a luxury, the rich can afford while the poor battle over it, citizens must now live in housing complexes strictly earmarked for specific castes and religious groups, inter-marrying is forbidden and “mischrit bachche” (children of mixed parentage) like Leila are viewed as undesirables.
Leila is about Shalini’s search for her daughter while she survives in humiliating, squalid conditions like all women who married outside their community.
What Doesn’t Work
Leila paints a picture of a dystopian, totalitarian state. Set in 2047, Leila brings forth the story of the newly-formed Aryavarta. The country functions like a religious cult where caste, creed, communities bid by stringent rules and policies differentiate society. The political and police authorities nab women who marry outside their community. Although set more than 25 years from now, Leila hits much harder on reality than one can expect. We see religious hegemony, from people enforcing it with violence to Berlin Wall-esque barriers within cities, separating upper-class Hindus from the ‘untouchables’ ─the poor, slum-dwelling population. Here, with scarce water and polluted air, clean air and water are luxuries.
One might think that these scenarios are exaggerations of the future. But, one look in the newspaper and this thought goes away. With daily reports of lynchings in the name of God, water scarcity in Chennai floods in Mumbai, and the air of Delhi being deemed ‘unfit’ for living, this representation feels like a warning, a wake-up call to change our ways before the point where there is no turning back.
One of the things that work for Leila is the issues it raises throughout its six-episode narrative. It talks about totalitarianism, patriarchy, class divide, and xenophobia. Leila is a denunciation of all orthodoxy and discrimination expressed most starkly through the portrayal of Aryavarta’s efforts to control women’s uteruses and marginalise “doosh”, the equivalent of India’s Dalits.
Leila’s treatment of women takes you back to the harrowing past where women were treated as the bottom-feeders. The camp where Qureshi’s Shalini stays sees her kind bathing with filthy water, rolling on men’s leftover, and polishing their boots. All in a daily struggle to impress Guru Ma, who ironically, is a man. These women are treated as literal ‘jute ki mail’ to which they comply by without putting up a fight.
The control on women’s uteruses echoes the tones of US’ Abortion Ban, and the fundamentalist group ‘Pavitra Paltan’ reminds you of Bajrang Dal. Leila feels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or George Orwell’s 1984 but quickly comes of this wing as the story progresses.
Leila’s true power lies in its acting. And the cast does a wonderful job in turning this make-believe plot into something real. Huma Qureshi lifts the show on her back as she slips into the role of Shalini Rizwan Chaudhary effortlessly. It is amazing to watch how she manages to convey heavy emotions without words. Moreover, all the important decision-making scenes contain these close-ups of Qureshi’s face with no significant dialogues where the viewer easily understands what Shalini is going through.
Siddharth, of Rang De Basanti fame, who plays Bhanu, moves mountains with his gritty and mysterious stare. His grey character Bhanu is an ambiguous character and the actor plays him with the right amount of mysteriousness and sensitivity. The tussle between Siddharth and Shalini add some pace to the early sluggish episodes, but Bhanu evolves as an interesting foil to Shalini.
At a creative level, Leila is not flawless. It lacks the simple yet difficult art of storytelling. The first two episodes are great. But Episode 3 and the finale abruptly take on the air of a thriller by ending on needless cliffhangers. The leeway that Shalini and the labour camp inspector Bhanu get in the last two episodes are not entirely convincing either. The portrayal of the characters is also inconsistent and the cold inky fascist empire a bit too make-believe.
The persecution of the adult Muslim is not as apparent. Shalini’s husband is lynched by the rank and file. The state doesn’t technically execute him. The show doesn’t deeply explore Naz’s motive which makes his villainy look forced and misplaced. It’s also baffling that Naz, who holds a separatist desire to build Muslims’ own walls, colludes with the Hindus.
Finally, the child seems to have no memory of Shalini after just two years of separation. We are told she has been completely brainwashed with state propaganda. But, that’s unconvincing. Similarly, there are other moments in the show which are hard to believe.
Leila ends on an unnecessary cliffhanger. The finale doesn’t provide any relief. It seems abruptly cut off, just for the sake of another season. While the pace of the book is slow and gritty, the show might feel rushed at times. Not to mention the endless loopholes, Netflix’s Leila feels like an honest attempt at story-telling. But if it truly wants to do better, the writers might have to consider correcting these little annoyances in the next season.
Leila is available for streaming on Netflix.
All images are taken from Imdb.com unless specified otherwise.