Monday, 30th October 2017

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Leila’s dystopian world holds a mirror to our present reality

Women in a welfare centre are drugged into submission so that they don’t question the status quo, in this Netflix series that’s set in a “foreseeable future” in India

  • Published 17.06.19, 3:37 AM
  • Updated 17.06.19, 3:37 AM
  • 4 mins read
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Huma Qureshi (in picture)is at the centre of Leila, investing Shalini with steely determination as well as a palpable vulnerability. Siddharth, as Shalini’s state-appointed minder Bhanu, is an ambiguous character and the actor plays him with the right mix of mysteriousness and sensitivity (Still from 'Leila')

A horrifying news item on Twitter caught my eye a few days ago. Female garment workers in a factory in Tamil Nadu are reportedly being forced to swallow unlabelled pills by the management to curb menstrual pains so that they make lesser trips to the washroom and can give unhindered time to their work in what is an appalling example of sexist labour exploitation. Something similar takes place in Leila — women in a welfare centre are drugged into submission so that they don’t question the status quo, in this Netflix series that’s set in a “foreseeable future” in India. Now what did they say again about dystopia being a mirror to present reality?

Based on Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 eponymous novel, Leila is an uncomfortable watch, largely because what happens through the course of this six-part series is unnervingly close to what we are seeing unfold in present-day India. Well, at least part of it.

Adapted by Urmi Juvekar and part directed by filmmaker Deepa Mehta who also acts as creative producer, Leila — though playing out in 2047 — is a zeitgeist of the times we live in or are possibly hurtling towards. A world in which an oppressive socio-political-religious order reigns, with the state monitoring the movements of its citizens 24x7, the populace being ghettoised into gated communities on the basis of religion, caste and allegiance to the state and where anyone who dares question this totalitarianism is considered a traitor and charged with sedition.

Leila is cut from the same cloth (right down to the unmissable red garb the women wear in both series) as The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel that’s now a popular TV series and focuses on the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society.

Leila opens with a shocker. Blissfully swimming in their pool at home, a family of three — Rizwan Choudhary (Rahul Khanna), his Hindu wife Shalini (Huma Qureshi) and three-year-old daughter Leila — are attacked by vigilantes. The husband is lynched, the wife imprisoned and the daughter whisked off to an unknown place. Their crime? At a time when the war for water is at the centre of almost every conflict, the affluent family is punished for using underhanded means to purchase what is a scarce resource. But beneath the obvious reason is another far more sinister. Marriage between a Hindu and Muslim is frowned upon in Aryavarta — which is what the new Hindu-dominated extremist state is called — and children of mixed blood are branded “impure” and peddled to potential adopters. Leila brings horrors — both real and imagined — alive as it traces Shalini’s journey through patriarchy, enslavement, subjugation and communal hatred to trace her daughter.

The Netflix series takes the germ of the book and gives it a fresh spin. While the book largely offers commentary on class, caste, gender and privilege, the series also touches upon the normalisation of oppression and the blind worship of political leaders, in this case a deified dictator named Joshi (Sanjay Suri). “My lineage is my destiny. I am blessed to have been born in this land,” is what ‘loyal’ citizens are made to parrot on a daily basis. In the book, Shalini’s efforts to trace Leila span 16 years while it’s just two years in the series.

Uncomfortably self-aware, Leila is not easy to sit through. The treatment of women — an ideal woman is one who is a “domestic goddess, reveres her family and spends her life in service”, says a poster on the wall of the welfare centre — will make you cringe. The inmates, all considered sinners who have to pass a “purity test”, are tortured both mentally and physically and any act of rebellion is met with severe punishment. In one scene, a woman is married off to a dog for refusing to comply with the rules. In this game of survival, women have turned against each other, despite suffering the same fate.

Even though she’s banished to the labour camp after she fails the purity test, Shalini breaks free from the shackles of the oppressive welfare centre and it’s Episode 3 onwards that Leila truly comes into its own as Shalini figures out ways and means — sometimes with an ally, sometimes not — to seek out her daughter. Along the way, she thwarts surveillance systems and uncovers a political conspiracy.

The drama as well as the character arc of its players may be uneven through the six episodes, but Leila scores a #win with its atmospherics. Johan Heurlin Aidt’s lens succinctly capture the cloudy visual palette of Aryavarta with its apocalyptic grey skies, smoggy streets, cheek-by-jowl slums and garbage piled into sky-high mountains. Even the rain here — brought on by severe pollution — is black in colour. The disparity between the privileged and the poor is spelt out in stark terms.

Largely make-up less and with her face boxed-in by uncomfortable close-ups, possibly to mirror Shalini’s claustrophobia, Huma Qureshi is at the centre of Leila. The actor invests Shalini with steely determination as well as a palpable vulnerability. She carries the series on her shoulders and gives us moods and moments — that scene where she realises who has actually orchestrated her misfortune is heartbreaking — that stay on with the viewer. Rang De Basanti man Siddharth, as Shalini’s state-appointed minder Bhanu, is an ambiguous character and the actor plays him with the right amount of mysteriousness and sensitivity. Rahul Khanna’s Riz pops up now and then in Shalini’s subconsciousness and is strictly disposable.

Leila ends on a cliffhanger that sets the tone for Season 2. At the end, the series leaves us with a glaring — and goosebump-inducing question. Could this dystopia well become our reality?