Note: This is a review of all six episodes of ‘Leila’, now streaming on Netflix.
It is a show that has found itself in the centre of controversy. Leila, the Netflix series about a dystopian world, starring Huma Qureshi and based on a novel by Prayaag Akbar, is a brave one. It is a show that forces you to think outside your own privilege, a show that demands you scrutinise the realities of today, ones that need to be addressed immediately. Leila is a show that no less than demands you see the future we are steadily running towards.
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A caveat like never before. Leila is a reminder of what our reality can become, and how slowly, but surely, we are marching towards it.
Leila is the story of Shalini (Huma Qureshi), a woman married to a Muslim man (Rahul Khanna) in the state of Aryavarta (Sanskrit for land of the Aryas, or the land of the “noble people”). Here, people are fighting for water, clean air, and a community purification drive is being carried out by the government. We see Shalini with her child and husband in a pool, having fun, while the city is desperate for water to drink and fresh air to breathe. Next, Aryavarta guards enter her house and Shalini is taken in from her rich and comfortable home to a purity camp, her husband is murdered and she is separated from her child, Leila.
Shalini’s privileged reality falls out of her fingers like sand. She is suddenly a slave in Aryavarta, a half-human who has no contact with the world and must prove her “purity” to go back into it.
The women in this camp are controlled by Aryavarta. Their lives aren’t just devoted to Aryavarta, they have become it. You see them chant slogans in its praise, being forced to give up their names, their lives, their self-respect, their hopes and dreams - and devote themselves to the state.
First, Huma Qureshi excels. Her raw presence in the show is as real as it gets on screen. Her emotions and vulnerability, her anger and fear, her will to survive...everything acts as a link to your present (privileged) reality and makes you wonder - “What if I lose it all?
The show is the story of her fall, rise, resilience, and a final brave fight.
It is almost as if Huma becomes the audience, she plays your part, a first person character in a video game. She is a person who was living her life in a bubble of her privilege, unaffected by the poverty and pain in the world - till everything turns around.
At no point do you not relate to the panic and fear in her eyes. When she finally escapes and becomes a wild, ferocious woman, you buy that too. A woman who has been pushed so far she isn’t afraid of anything anymore. It is almost as if Huma becomes the audience, she plays your part, a first person character in a video game. Huma, as Shalini makes it her final goal to get herself back to her daughter, her last connect with her past life of luxury. She is going to fight for her family, even when she realises a family member is the reason she lost it all in the first place. Set in this totalitarian background, Shalini’s fight to find her way back to her daughter becomes one for freedom, for respect, for independence. It becomes her way of finding herself, a small rebellion against the forces she can barely look in the eye.
The show is as shocking as it is thrilling. The well shot action sequences sprinkled here and there add to the tension that bubbles the narrative. Politics, power, pain and perseverance...they have it all.
Actor Siddharth, who plays one of Aryavarta’s labour camp guards is spectacular as well. He is determined to follow his duty, but you can’t help but notice him giving Shalini a kind eye once in a while. His character arc is perhaps even more special than Huma’s. We see a man who dutifully performs, but is not afraid to step back and draw a line when he sees fanaticism enter the picture. It is in fact a partnership he develops with the woman he one controlled that makes the final crux of the show. Will two brave people bring down a tyranny?
Another actor who must be commended is Arif Zakaria, who plays ‘Guru Ma’, who trains all detainees at these purification camps. His cold absurd rules work hand in hand with his stone cold eyes. At times, his presence on screen makes you feel uncomfortable yourself.
While the makers claim otherwise, gender violence, incidents of oppression, caste discrimination, state surveillance and other details (such as people hiding photos of Gandhi) can be directly linked to the developments in the country, and the world overall, today.
Religion and government have merged into one. The patriarchal world pushes the weaker of society further down, people murder for water (there are actual ATMs for it) and run away from the black rain. Freedom of speech is next to dead, family members turn on each other to prove their loyalty to the state.
The air in the state smells of fear - and the wonderful direction and top-notch production make the entire show a thrilling treat. You can’t help but draw parallels to everything that surrounds us today, and the show then naturally forces you to think about what is right and what is wrong, what the lack of clean air and water for all can finally lead to, what a broken discriminating society can turn lives into, and why finally, we need to do something about it.
The show is presented as an extreme situation, but it forces you to see how close we have come to making it our reality. We are no longer tip-toe-ing towards it, this is a full-fledged run.
Being what it is, a show, it does tend to, at points, make the characters look unrealistically impractical. The last two episodes of the show do feel a little far-fetched, things just (strangely) keep falling into place. However, that is creative liberty you as audience will be more than willing to forgive. Specially with actor Akash Khurana entering the picture, the progressions seem a little smoother. A new power, new dynamics.
The show is presented as an extreme situation, but it forces you to see how close we have come to making it our reality. We are no longer tip-toe-ing towards it, this is a full-fledged run. All in all, Leila is ground-breaking can absolutely not be missed.
(‘Leila’ has been directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman, and Pawan Kumar. Deepa Mehta is also Creative Producer on the series)
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