Leila directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman, and Pawan Kumar opens up with the mob lynching of a Muslim man named Rizwan Chaudahari( Rahul Khanna). He is seen leading a happy life with his Hindu wife Shalini( Huma Qureshi) who is arrested and put into a concentration labor camp. Their daughter Leila- a true symbol of their love – is kidnapped.

The happy life of the family ends here. Based on the novel written by Indian journalist and novelist, Prayag Akbar’s novel Leila, the story is about Shalini, who tries to find her missing daughter in a totalitarian regime in the near future. Seeing the trailer, you would know that the show is set in a world where one’s religious believes decides their chance of survival. “My lineage is my destiny”. “Jay Aryavarta”. Leila is set in the late 2040s in India that is known as Aryavarta.

The country functions like a religious cult where the society is differentiated based on caste, creed, communities bid by stringent rules and policies. The political and police authorities nab women who get married outside their community. They are termed as “dushkarni”- impure and this is what escalates the plot.

Leila Review: A Scary Dystopic Fiction Starring Huma Qureshi, On Netflix's Latest
Leila Review: A Scary Dystopic Fiction Starring Huma Qureshi, On Netflix’s Latest

Aryavarta is a dictatorial, totalitarian nation headed by Joshi (Sanjay Suri). The social norms have fallen apart following severe water cut and air pollution. Communities have tall walls divided into sectors, emphasizing on purity. The amalgamation of different communities seen together is seen as a punishable and an act of offence.

Transgressors are cut off from their families and sent to facilities where they are given uniforms and reschooled in the new ways of the new world (“Mera janm hi hai mera karm” – my birth determines my fate.)

Shalini is one such transgressor who is termed as a Panchkarni( category 5) and is nabbed because of committing a crime of marrying a man of other religion and community. Over the due time of six episodes, Shalini attempts to find her missing daughter, dodging surveillance, intelligent systems, ruckus thugs and uncovering a political conspiracy along the way.

Writers Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kanwar and Patrick Graham make some significant changes to the crucks of the series. Though Prayaag’s narrative is slowly driven by the thoughts of Shalini, this series intrigues the timeline. Younger Shalini, her loss and longing streamline the storytelling. The thriller showcases the brawl for water intelligently. From a woman’s perspective, the narrative is recited from a mother’s voice. Leila serves as a name existing in a religious space.

Director Deepa Mehta certainly shoots Huma in a manner that emphasizes her closure. In moments where Shalini is forced to make tough choices her face is confined in uncomfortably tight close-ups sans makeup. And it is in those moments that Huma gets a chance to show off her acting muscles. The shots of filthy streets, gated walls, water cuts, pollution, giant garbage dumps with hues of dark-colored shot shows the future of India- portraying a real picture.

The first two episodes directed by Mehta are its strongest, recognizing the ill-treatment of women as intrinsic to this totalitarian project. They are also the only episodes that seem to be interested in the compromised choices and complicated relationships of kinship that emerge among women under institutionalized Hinduism. It’s fertile territory for Mehta who has explored Sapphic love and female solidarity under Hindu patriarchy in Fire (1996) and the Oscar-nominated Water (2005).

The star performers are

Huma Qureshi as Shalini, a woman who has seen the greatest sorrow and is not privileged. Separated from her child and husband she is ripped off 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 fights in the fictional world of Aryavarta with threatful experiences for her missing daughter.

Joshi (Sanjay Suri), a semi-divine godly figure who governs over the populace through holograms, photographs, and statues. He is a real dictator whose only seen in billboards in the first three episodes. His followers are his blind goats.

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. The tussle and fight between Siddharth and Shalini add some pace to the early sluggish episodes, and Bhanu evolves as an interesting foil to Shalini.

Rahul Khanna’s Riz pops up now and then in Shalini’s subconsciousness say as a ghost and is strictly disposable.

Seema Biswas as Madhu is a cunning and a selfish friend with her own set of motives. A fellow inmate, Madhu helps Shalini in her quest.

Dixit (Ashwath Bhatt), heads an important project for Aryavarta.

Arif Zakaria plays a pivotal role. He is perfectly sinister as Iyer- the head of the purification camp.

In short, the series tackles too many themes – surveillance, hyper-segregation, social hierarchies, authoritarianism, pollution, a water supply crisis – without exploring any one idea with depth. Leila is a bold and brave Sci- fi drama where the director Deepa Mehta shows us the world of darkness with no happy endings. The cinematic language is par excellence. There is something quite rebellious in nature about Leila which has inspired the suppressed bold voices to come out and speak. The show rightly portrays the rising political changes that can “have a devastating impact on people’s lives” by humanizing the impact.

The Netflix series did not connect to me emotionally. The dystopian world owned by a fanatic sect is strangulated to pieces and does not bind your attention for a long time. The journey of a mother to find her missing daughter is shown in a puzzled way. I did not find the hype in the series as in the trailer. Though the art of narrating the story gets a bit difficult, post the first two episodes but watch it with some great concentration.

The depiction of characters in the due course builds up the consistency, making you infatuated in the make-believe world. If dystopian fiction related to mass poverty, public mistrust and suspicion, a police state or oppression interests you. Only if you want to see a courageous series where India is shown under the Draconian rule, gaze it. Watch only if you if dystopian fiction related to mass poverty, public mistrust, and suspicion, a police state or oppression interests you. Only if you want to see a courageous series where India is shown under the Draconian rule, gaze it.

Rating- 3/5

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1 COMMENT

  1. i suggest you read the book. You statement: “Writers Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kanwar and Patrick Graham make some significant changes to the crucks ” (sic) of the series is an understatement.

    Prayag’s book has nothing to do with a hindu state. in fact the city is not named Aryawata. Its not even mentioned that its a city in India.

    This is typical Deepa Mehta. Take a beautiful story and morph it into a controversy so that it results in higher TRPs. Netflix’s Leila is not written by Prayag Akbar. Its written by Deepa Mehta. The fact that both works of fiction share the same title is a tragedy.

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