By Murtaza Ali Khan
Netflix has recently released its latest Indian Original series called Leila. Helmed by noted Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, Leila is based on a dystopian alternate reality novel of the same name by Prayaag Akbar. The series which Mehta has co-directed with Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar stars Huma Qureshi, Siddharth, Arif Zakaria, Sanjay Suri, Seema Biswas, and Rahul Khanna in major roles.
Leila is set in the year 2047 where an oppressive regime segregates society into communities, separated by sky-high walls. The regime which believes in the purity of lineage prohibits people from marrying outside one’s caste or religion. The county born out of this upheaval is called Aryavarta and is just three years old. There is great scarcity of clean air and water and other basic amenities and those hailing from lower castes are deprived of them. Also there is a group of rebels that aims to overthrow the dictatorial regime led by the autocratic leader named Dr. Joshi.
Qureshi plays the central character of a woman named Shalini who is punished by the regime for marrying outside her religion. Her husband is killed and her three-year-old daughter Leila is taken away from her while she is taken into custody. She spends the next couple of years at a reformation centre where women are subjected to different forms of punishment aimed at purifying their body, mind, and soul so that they are once again fit to be a part of the Aryavarta patriarchal society.
The depiction of futuristic dystopia in Leila is almost laughable. While on one hand you have gas chambers to execute those unfit for society à la Nazi Germany, on the other there are all-pervading slums outside the walls. There is a whole world of dystopian literature available for study but perhaps Deepa Mehta didn’t want to go beyond the idea of a squalid underbelly that has been best captured by films like Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire.
Now, the choice of contrasting the quality of life within and beyond the walls is certainly interesting but the series fails to establish the geography well. Perhaps, the budgetary constraints are to be blamed for the sparse use of computer graphics in Leila. In the absence of those high-rise buildings, gigantic pyramidical structures, flying cars and whatnot, Leila’s dystopian world looks undeniably ordinary.
Owing to the lack of visual splendour, the series tries to pep up things by resorting to sensationalism depicted in form a highly contrived mob lynching sequence and another controversial scene depicting the live demolition of the Taj Mahal. While Huma Qureshi looks rather one-dimensional for the most part, Siddharth succeeds in delivering a layered performance as Bhanu. Sanjay Suri, who essays Dr. Joshi, is brilliant in a never-seen-before cold and menacing avatar. But it is Arif Zakaria as Guru Ma who looks the most chilling of the lot. With the sixth and final episode of Leila ending on a cliff-hanger, it is certain that we haven’t seen the last of the Netflix series. One really hopes that the makers succeed in putting up a better show in the next season.
Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of A Potpourri of Vestiges and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He has also contributed to The Hindu, The Quint, Wittyfeed, etc. He is on the guest panel for live discussions on the television channel News X. He is Films Editor at Café Dissensus.
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