Cast - Huma Qureshi, Rahul Khanna, Siddharth, Sanjay Suri
Rating - 4/5
Netflix’s latest Indian original series, Leila, opens with the lynching of a Muslim man. His formerly Hindu wife is arrested by the followers of an authoritarian political leader, and put into a ‘labour camp’. Their daughter - a symbol of their transgressive love - is taken away. It’s the most courageous opening scene I’ve seen since Anurag Kashyap’s similarly political Mukkabaaz.
What the show cannot achieve in terms of streamlined storytelling, it more than makes up for with the sheer audacity of its ideas, and for having the bravery of following through on them. One scene in particular is so deliberately provocative, I can’t imagine it not being controversial. Leila fills a longstanding void in the arena of Indian speculative fiction, and will be considered in the future, along with 2018’s Ghoul, as a show that captured the zeitgeist of a nation, at a very pivotal moment in its history.
But suspicions have already arisen. Its trailer, released on YouTube a month ahead of its debut, has accumulated significantly more ‘dislikes’ than ‘likes’. If you’re in the mood to experience the unhinged lawlessness of a YouTube comments section, all you need to do is to scroll down and read. Several people are accusing the series of being ‘Hindu phobic’; others are calling for a boycott of Netflix.
The YouTube comments section is like an unsupervised nook at the backside of a school, where the rough kids go to sneak a smoke; it’s a space that encourages the worst ideas human beings are capable of, because it’s a space that empowers polluted thought. It is where even the most detestable people can find support, and once encouraged, the confidence to continue.
The YouTube comments section, some would say, is almost as terrifying as the fictional nation of Aryavarta, circa 2049, where the citizenry has been segregated on the basis of class, religion and income, in a world on the brink of environmental collapse - a key theme that might unfortunately be drowned out by the show’s political overtones.
Huma Qureshi plays Shalini, a woman of rare privilege in these troubled times. She can, for instance, afford to pay for water, a depleted resource that the less fortunate have to scrounge around for. She is stripped of this entitlement, and of her dignity, when she is arrested by the Rudraksha-wearing foot soldiers of the regime - the chowkidaars, if you will - for having married outside her faith.
She is sent to a labour camp, where other transgressive women like her are ‘purified’ of their ‘sins’. The scenes in the camp - where the first episode is largely set - have rather obvious visual and thematic similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s excellent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel. The manner in which the women are framed, the powerful image of red uniforms against a drab background, the soft focus; it’s all very evocative.
In the labour camp, Shalini and the other women are drugged into submission by a troupe of hijra police persons, and are forced, in a daring critique of hyper-nationalism, to express their devotion and gratitude to the nation of Aryavarta. “My lineage is my destiny. I am blessed to have been born in this land,” they chant, and when they don’t, a recording recites the same words on a loop in the background. It has an eerie affect that almost, but not quite, tricks the viewer into believing that they, too, are prisoners.
Director Deepa Mehta certainly shoots Huma in a manner that emphasises her entrapment. In moments where Shalini is forced to make difficult decisions, her face is confined in uncomfortably tight close-ups. And it is in those moments that Huma gets a chance to flex her acting muscles. As blunt as some of the show’s political statements are, Huma’s subtle performance nicely balances Leila’s overzealous aspects, the biggest and most fearless of which has to be the character of Joshi.
He didn’t exist in Prayaag Akbar’s source novel - at least not in this form - which, although very much about class and religious segregation, isn’t as overtly political as the show. In the three episodes that were provided for preview, Joshi is seen only in portraits and on billboards, on the walls of shopping malls and government offices - smiling, serene, and surrounded by saffron. Through fear and false promises - mostly about economic growth and the preservation of tradition and culture - he manages to keep the population of Aryavarta under his thumb. His bhakts have a term of endearment for him: Joshiji. Children enjoy his exploits in cartoons about his youth. Their mothers encourage them to be like Joshiji when they grow up.
Throughout history, the clampdown on thought and free speech has inspired bold voices to emerge from the darkness. There is something rather rebellious about Leila, especially in an age where we can witness, almost on a daily basis, the consequences of dissent.
Mukkabaaz somehow slipped under the radar of the radical right-wing. I hope for Leila’s sake that it evades capture, too.