Cast: Huma Qureshi, Rahul Khanna, Arif Zakaria, Sanjay Suri, Seema Biswas, Ashwath Bhatt, Anupam Bhattacharya, Akash Khurana, Jagjeet Sandhu
Directors: Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Set in a foreseeable future, Leila, which premieres on Netflix on June 14, is about a nation where abuse of political power, nationalistic delusions, oppression of women stemming from obsessive exceptionalism and class and caste tensions have taken deep roots. The nightmare scenario it constructs does not feel distant or fictional because the flashpoints – severe water scarcity, systematic segregation of populations, organ harvesting rackets, attacks on intellectuals – are easy to fathom in the fraught times we live in.
The slow-burning, immersive series taps our worst fears. We’d rather turn our eyes away from the writing on the wall but cannot because the dire warning signals are rooted in the realm of the possible and palpable. A combination of taut writing, sustained technical finesse and Huma Qureshi’s measured lead performance underpins Leila and enhances the acuity of its exploration of the chilling ramifications of totalitarianism.
The chilling tale does not overplay its hands as it draws the audience gradually into a murky, portentous universe where humanity has been run into the ground by an oligarchy that has arrogated to itself the power to divine who is pure and who isn’t.
The colour palette is muted. Ashen, dull bluish frames are occasionally punctuated by fiery golden bursts of muffled lighting. It creates a perfectly apt visual ambience for the dystopic vision of the six-episode series, directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar (two episodes each), with Mehta also serving as the creative executive producer.
The year is 2047. The story unfolds in a land called Aryavarta. Under a brutal, authoritarian regime, the nation has been splintered into sectors and categories along class, caste and religious lines. With her back to the wall, a woman who has married outside her religious community searches for a daughter taken away from her as part of an officially mandated drive to cleanse the country of mixed-blood children.
Religious identity isn’t, however, the only trigger for the deep, unbridgeable social cleavages in Aryavarta; gender and economic status, too, determine who lives in which sector and who belongs to which category of citizenry. The most vulnerable are the least protected here, a fact underlined by the protagonist’s interactions (in Episode 2) with an orphan girl banished to the squalor of a shantytown because her father was a rebel who dared to stand up against the might of the oppressors.
This story of a distraught yet determined mother and a missing child in a world overrun by dark forces is peppered with twists and turns and enveloped in an air of dread and foreboding. As the protagonist negotiates serious obstacles, stumbles upon lies and secrets, and strikes tense deals that could help her find her daughter, Leila springs enough surprises (not only in plot terms, but also in respect of the devices it employs) to be instantly binge-worthy.
Urmi Juvekar’s insightful adaptation of Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 novel of the same name evokes intrigue and anticipation, in the bargain generating the sort of latent energy that flows like ominous ripples under the surface rather than bubble and crackle and spill over. Leila takes next to no time to place its key plot elements on the table without giving too much away. But right upfront it unambiguously indicates the hellish nature of the world.
Episode 1, Scene 1 – this is a pre-credits sequence in the swanky home of an affluent couple and their daughter where the action unfolds in and around a swimming pool – reveals the principal fault lines that that will determine the protagonist’s immediate future. The names of the three characters serve to define the broad contours of the narrative.
The man in the swimming pool is Rizwan Chaudhury (Rahul Khanna), the wife is Shalini (Huma Qureshi), and the daughter, a three-year-old girl, answers to the religious identity-neutral name of Leila. A fourth individual, the housemaid Sapna, an outsider in this charmed cocoon, completes the picture.