In one of the scenes in “Leila”, Shalini the lead protagonist witnesses the brutal murder of her husband by a gang of a Hindu fringe group as she is married to a Muslim husband and her daughter is “Mishrit” (Mixed-Blooded) child. They are also targeted as they have committed a crime of “buying” fresh water for their swimming pool. The year is 2049 and the country which they live in is called “Aryavrata.” In these few opening sequences, award winning Director Deepa Mehta creates a mythic world which hinges somewhat on the challenges of today’s India. And we as audiences are looking at India’s first film about a dystopian future.
“Leila” stars Huma Qureshi, Rahul Khanna, Seema Biswas, Sanjay Suri and Ashwath Bhatt in pivotal roles. The series is spread over 5 episodes and is produced by Netflix. There are three Directors to the episodes which include Deepa Mehta, Pawan Kumar and Shankar Raman. The story is based on a book of the same name by Prayag Akbar.
The series is focused on Shalini Rizwan Chaudhary and her quest for her stolen daughter. Shalini lives a privileged life with her Muslim husband and Leila, her daughter. On a fateful day, her husband is murdered by a Hindu fringe group in front of her eyes and Leila is taken away. This is a handy work of Aryavrata which is the ruling government of the city/nation state in 2049. Aryavrata is shown as a Hindu centric and yet very focused on “cleansing” the society by creating segregated societies and clusters. The few rich live like kings and the new “poor” comprise of minorities, liberals, the already poor and others. Shalini sets on a mission to find “Leila” as she deported to a refugee camp. She slowly works her way up to reaching the inner sanctum of Aryavrata to find “Leila”. In this journey she is helped by Bhanu (Siddharth Suryanarayanan) who is a Captain in the Aryavrata army but is also leading the rebellion. Shalini also works briefly with Dr Dixit (Ashwath Bhatt) and his family who are key architects of the “Skydome” project. In her journey Shalini realizes the rot in her own society and encounters the chilling realities which have emerged and upset the social order as the “cleansing” and “purifying” process is underway!
“Leila” is a show based in the vein of “Book Of Eli”, “Terminator” franchise, “Resident Evil” etc. The story does not include cyborgs or spaceships but looks at the real world threats of today. It embodies the fact that unresolved human and societal challenges contribute in creating a bleak and alternate world with its own rules. In one of the scenes, Shalini goes hiding in a slum when it rains heavily and she is petrified to see the color of rain which has turned into “black”. This is largely due to alarming levels of pollution and climatic shifts in the future. The stark contrasts of lifestyles of the new “pure and cleansed” and the “liberals” is eye catching. From purely the perspective of production design, it looks a lot like Hollywood peers such as “Chappie”, “Elysium”, “District 9” and so on. There are innumerous mentions of Dr Joshi, the creator of Aryavrat. His face appears in every place in the city. Huge posters, cutouts, video ads, futuristic ambient media structures etc. It clearly appears that Joshi is the creator of a world which is largely fascist with just one supreme leader. Another fascinating character to depict this world and its ethos is “Guru Ma” played by Rafiq Zakaria, who runs an “academy” which purifies women in Aryavrat. The very fact that a “Male” is referred to as “Ma” is very telling of the deep rooted patriarchy in this purified nation state. Women are forced to chant Hindu religious scriptures and are forced to forget their own religion or otherwise they will be thrown the refugee camps. Harrowing videos of children in cages are shown chanting the mantras of unity by Dr Joshi. Its clear that Aryavrata has been placed at a position similar to the Nazi party in Germany. However, their hypocrisy is out as their No.2 leader Rao Saheb is shown as a big fan of the Muslim poet ie Faiz Mohammed Faiz.
The production design of Leila is also its strength. Its rooted in reality in a way. There are glimpses of large military facilities but Deepa Mehta and her team have ensured that the look and feel of Aryavrata is the Delhi of today. In one of the scenes, Shalini is being driven and taken around a large garbage dump which is actually the Bhalswa Landfill site in Delhi. There are long shots around Nehru Place in Delhi showing small shops in old commercial plazas echoing the fact that development is largely confined to the inner sanctums and the powerful people of Aryavrata.
Shalini is the torchbearer of this story. It’s totally driven by her angst and courage at the same time. In her journey to find her daughter she gets beaten up, almost killed and her respect is stripped off by each passing moment. But even then she gathers her courage and will to move further. She knows that her path is next to impossible but she gambles every step of the way to move forward. Shalini in some ways resembles Clarice Starling from “Silence Of The Lambs”. Clarice is tasked to find a serial killer while she is working at the FBI. Both Shalini and Clarice are operating in a male dominated world at Aryavrata and the FBI (in 1991). Clarice sees her childhood and father as a source of inspiration to move forward. Shalini on the other hand keeps Rizwan as an imaginary companion in her mind to kill the loneliness she is in. The difference between Clarice and Shalini is the fact that Clarice is played by Jodie Foster and Shalini is played Huma Qureshi. This comparison is needless but the characters they portray are somewhat from a similar perspective.
Huma Qureshi delivers her best performance till now. She is totally deglamourized by Mehta and is given the next door girl type look. Her character is beautifully etched as she keeps taking challenges much bigger than her. However, she still doesn’t exude command over the world she operates in. She looks like an underdog but doesn’t really end up being a Hero for the people. I hope the next season will show us more.
Siddarth as Bhanu is studied and very tight with his emotions. He looks real and believable but he too doesn’t give the impression of the leader of a leading a rebellion.
Seema Biswas gives a thoughtful and able performance. Rising Star Ashwath Bhatt delivers yet another effective performance as Dr Dixit. Akash Khurana as Rao Saheb gives a powerful performance as well.
I would give Leela an 8 out of 10 for the very world it creates for the viewer. It builds up beautifully but the climax could have had bigger optics.