We talk a lot about utopia. About what would happen in a world where things are ideal, where thoughts are secular, where there’s utmost freedom of speech, where there’s no poverty, no divisions.
What we don’t talk about is a world of dystopia. About what would happen if the already existing divisions were to be divided further, if the world we know now will look like colours and rainbows when you compare it with a world like that. Deepa Mehta’s Leila speaks of just that.
Based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Prayaag Akbar, Leila is the story of Shalini (Huma Qureshi) and how one fateful day changes her life in a way she couldn’t have fathomed. She finds herself traumatized and helpless as invaders enter her house, kill her loving husband Riz (Rahul Khanna) and take her away to a Purity Camp to make her ‘pure’ again, without leaving a single trace of information about her little daughter, Leila. Her fault? She, a Hindu upper-caste girl, married a Muslim man. Thereon, begins her frantic search for her child that sets the premise of the Netflix Original.
Set in a futuristic premise, the incidents occur in 2047 in the nation of Aryavarta, a country where cities are divided into sectors with walls. Each sector comprises a community that is free to practice their religious beliefs. Dr. Joshi (Sanjay Suri) is the leader of this odd nation. He attains a God-like position in the country where people have his pictures instead of God’s, his life-size posters and statues all across and even notes with his face on them. And oh, he believes in peace by segregation (cue the previous paragraph).
The acting is top-notch, especially from Huma Qureshi, who gives life to Shalini. Her empty eyes emote Shalini’s pain, and her stoic demeanor is a reflection of her blind determination to track her child. Keep an eye on little Roop and her endearing bond with Shalini, those moments shine in the show.
The sets are melancholic and mostly dark, the outfits and the women in the camp might even remind one of The Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, one might even get hints of Raazi, as Shalini, in a bid to find her daughter, ends up getting involved in matters and secrets that lie within, in the name of the perfect harmonious nation. The six-part series, spanning about 50 minutes per episode, is certainly gripping. It manages to keep the viewer engaged and invested as Shalini goes from one place to another, hoping to find some clue about Leila.
What’s interesting here is that water, in this country, is no less than money. In fact, there are water ATMs here, which could only be accessed by official Aryavartas – their identity lies in their tattoos, which are pretty much like a biometric-based, digital Aadhar card carrying all their information. The detailing is nicely done and the VFX is on-point, making the production value look quite believable. The mud rains, the dark water coming out from taps, raise the very important issue of water scarcity – something we know about, but don’t pay too much attention to. Seeing the repercussions, one can’t help but wonder if this is an alternate reality, what’ll happen if ever it becomes real?
Directed by the talented Deepa Mehta, the woman behind the Elements Trilogy – Fire, Earth and Water, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar, Leila aims to show several intricacies of a country helmed by a cult.
Here, women who marry outside their category and religion are forced to undergo years of “training” at a Purity camp, abort her child if she’s carrying a “mishrit” (a baby of mixed religion), bathe in muddy, unclean water, polish shoes of unknown men, roll over half-eaten plates of men as a ritual practice, and even spend the rest of her life in a Labour camp, if deemed ‘unfit’ for purification. And while the parallels of time going forward while thoughts go backward is clearly established – bringing a legit goosebumps-inducing idea of a dystopian world to the forefront – what the series misses out on is the novelty factor. All these practices and rituals don’t stir you enough because sadly enough, all of us have been reading, hearing or watching similar instances unfold for real – in the past, as well as present.
The idea of divisions and walls is scary, and yet it takes a dip because most of the information about it is told on text – not shown. So unless you watch – and read – the first episode very carefully, you wouldn’t understand what exactly is happening. That’s the biggest problem of Leila. It’s somewhat lazy in depicting the exact background of it all and relies on people to fill in the blanks with their own understanding of situations. Some characters, including the one played by Siddharth, seem incomplete. Random characters are thrown upon you, and the saddest thing that happens because of that: the anti-climax is predictable and you find yourself already solving the biggest mystery by the fifth episode itself. The climax too, leaves you disappointed with several questions yet to be solved.
Loose ends apart, it’s definitely a one-time watch. And if it hooks you, you’ll watch it till the very end. And so, we, at The Red Sparrow, give it 3 chirps.