At its heart, Netflix’s upcoming series Leila is about a mother’s quest for her daughter. But the series is equally a mirror to society’s worst tendencies, a warning that dystopia that could become reality if these forces go unchecked.
Set in the late 2040s, Leila is centred on Shalini (Huma Qureshi), a young Hindu woman whose daughter is snatched away from her after an oppressive socio-political order takes root in her city. This is a world where segregation has reached its peak – the city is divided into sectors, each housing a particular community. Sky-high walls divide the sectors and intermingling between religions, castes and sub-castes is frowned upon.
Outside these walled communities, in the spaces where the have-nots reside, there is extreme poverty, filth, squalor, and a breakdown of civic amenities. In such a universe, as Shalini dares to marry a Muslim man, Rizwan (Rahul Khanna), she pays the price by being separated from her family and confined to a facility where other women who have similarly transgressed are held captive.
The series is based on the Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 dystopic novel of the same name. Canadian-Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, best known for her Elements trilogy – Fire (1996), Earth (1999) and Water (2005) – was the creative executive producer and co-director of the Netflix series.
In an interview, Mehta said she was drawn to Akbar’s novel because of its prescient themes. “What appealed to me about the project was the curiosity towards things I don’t know too much about it,” she told Scroll.in “I think the world is changing radically into a totalitarian ethos and it’s curious to me how it’s happening so rapidly. Whether it’s Turkey, the US or Hungary. Why are things changing so fast? Did the Liberal Left let down people or did we not understand it?”
The series cast includes Sanjay Suri, Siddharth, Arif Zakaria and Seema Biswas. Leila will be released on Netflix on June 14.
Leila was adapted for Netflix by a team of three: head writer Urmi Juvekar along with Suhani Kanwar and Patrick Graham. Mehta’s role was to oversee the entire project and directorial responsibilities were shared between her, Kannada filmmaker Pawan Kumar (Lucia, U-Turn) and Shankar Raman (Gurgaon). Each of them directed two episodes of the six-part series.
“The episodes were shot completely separately but I insisted that both directors come for the workshop I had,” Mehta said. “This was to ensure that the setting of the series, the production design and casting, was all in place, so that you can feel it’s the same world.”
Netflix’s Leila borrows themes and the basic premise from Akbar’s novel, but takes the story in new directions. “Urmi had a very good sense of my book and I liked her reading of it,” said Akbar, an author and journalist who has previously worked with Scroll.in “So these are my characters and elements of the world I’ve created. They’ve changed a lot with the story, but the heart of it, Shalini and her search, that remains and I’m glad about it.”
Akbar said the driving force of the dystopia in his novel was the caste and class barriers that are represented by the sectors. The fictional world borrowed elements from Mumbai and Delhi. “My book examined how class and caste shape our urban spaces,” he added. “The series adds a different kind of political system to that.”
That politico-religious thrust is provided by the creation of a totalitarian country called Aryavarta, whose figurehead, Joshi (Sanjay Suri), is a deity-like entity whose posters dominate the city, whose name is on everyone’s lips and whose followers, clad in uniforms, impose his writ upon the population. The series was filmed in Delhi and Gurgaon. It was largely shot on location, with some visual effects used to create the high walls that separate the various sectors in this hyper-segregated world.
Leila is Netflix India’s second attempt at a dystopic narrative after its 2018 mini-series Ghoul, starring Radhika Apte, which was set in a totalitarian regime where sectarian violence, hyper-nationalism and Islamophobia are at their peak. The genre has been slow to catch on in India, a country where extreme inequality, shortage of civic amenities, caste discrimination and squalor are lived realities for the majority of the population. These blurred lines between the present and an anarchic future is what makes Leila so powerful, according to Mehta. “Dystopia is always rooted in the present,” she told Scroll.in. “The setting of Leila is particular to India, but its themes are universal. It becomes a dystopia when the particular becomes the universal.”
Moreover, these social realities exist across the world, she said. “You have segregation in Canada,” she said. “There are ghettos all over the world. Segregation is happening everywhere, and without any apology, and that’s what’s disconcerting.”
Akbar said that the dystopia of his novel was influenced by social forces and discrimination he had observed over years. He recalled having trouble finding a home in Mumbai in 2014 because of his Muslim name. “It was an eye-opening experience for me,” he said. “These are long forces, this is not political change, it’s not about a government. This is about how we are treating each other. At a personal level what are our interactions that can lead us to a dystopic state of mind.”
The release of Leila’s trailer in May has been followed by a wave of social media backlash by groups who believe that the series is anti-Hindu. But Akbar said that The Council, the power structure that controls the city in the novel, is not based on any specific religion and is instead an amalgamation of aspects of various faiths.
This idea, he said, came to him when he saw a photograph of a priest, an imam and a pandit celebrating the Supreme Court’s December 2013 decision to overturn a High Court order decriminalising homosexuality. (The Supreme Court last year overturned this earlier ruling, making homosexuality legal in India.)
“This [photograph] was a perfect example of how these three figures, who may not get along in any other context, can come together and take away someone’s very basic personal freedom,” Akbar said. “So the starting point of the book was, what if there was a society where all these ‘community elders’ got to lay down the rules?”
Mehta reiterated that viewers should reserve their judgement on this aspect until the series comes out. “The world of social media has made immediate reactions available,” she said. “I’d say I wish people see the series before they make up their mind. It’s definitely not anti-Hindu. The series is about humanity, about climate and about lack of human dignity.”
Mehta is no stranger to moral policing of this sort. Her 1998 film Fire, which examined a lesbian relationship, was cleared without cuts by the censor board but raised the hackles of right-wing groups. Volunteers led by the Shiv Sena in Mumbai vandalised theatres and brought screenings to a halt. The film was eventually re-released in February 1999.
Does taking on a story about a dystopian world with a totalitarian and puritanical regime seem like a natural extension for the filmmaker? “It didn’t even strike me actually, it was a very long time ago,” Mehta said. “Leila isn’t so much about moral policing but about the fact that whenever you have a totalitarian government, if you don’t walk the straight and narrow then you’re dead.”