Note: Spoilers ahead for the Netflix series ‘Leila’.
Seeing isn’t always believing in Leila. The new Netflix Indian original series is set in 2047 but feels a lot like 2019 – and not in the best possible way.
Leila is an adaptation of Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 novel of the same name. The six-episode first season explores the worst-case scenario that is typical of dystopic fiction: the “what-if” that has become reality.
Vast parts of India have been taken over by a Hindutva group obsessed with purity and reinforcing social divisions. In this new land rechristened Aryavarta, children born of inter-caste and inter-religious unions are snatched away from their parents. Meat-eating is forbidden. Women who are deemed to have violated the purity principle are subjected to a process of brainwashing. The privileged have willingly ghettoised themselves. The poor are relegated to slums.
In the series, which has been directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar and written by Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kanwar and Patrick Graham, images of the head of this totalitarian state, a man known only as Joshi, are everywhere, reminding his subjects of his omniscience. The story focuses on a mother named Shalini as she hunts desperately for Leila, the daughter she had with her Muslim husband.
Post-apocalyptic fiction often presents extreme visions of tomorrow in the hope that they will serve as warnings about the lessons ignored today. Despite this, these prophecies are often self-fulfilling.
That wall coming up on the border? The acceptance of face-recognition technology? The belief that genetic solutions will be found for crippling ailments? The demonisation of minority and marginalised communities? The scenarios presented by Leila are not as fanciful as they might appear.
Presenting an imaginary map of the rocky road is one sure-shot method of shaking jaded moviegoers out of their junk food-induced stupor.
Films as varied in tone and treatment as Metropolis (1927), the various adaptations of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, A Clockwork Orange (1971), Blade Runner (1982), the Mad Max series, the Planet of the Apes franchise, the Matrix trilogy, Gattaca (1997) and Minority Report (2002) are set in nation-states that look very different from the ones we live in. In these alternative realities, the technology is vastly superior, social behaviour and moral codes have changed, and even the clothes and food consumption habits have been altered.
In such films, the production design is not merely window dressing. The absence of the familiar creates disorientation and alienation. The technological advances amplify the rise of the surveillance state – the highly advanced crime detection techniques in Minority Report, for instance, or the simulated reality in The Matrix. The replacement of things that are considered normal and necessary – food, sex, books, music – with all-powerful gadgets increases the feeling of dehumanisation and suggests that the future will be as soul-destroying as it is slick.
Leila, however, is firmly stuck in the present. Like the 2018 Netflix series Ghoul, Leila appears to lack the production budget necessary to make Aryavarta a convincing reality. The series relies heavily on suggestion and takes short-cuts to create a world that does not look very different from the average Indian metropolis. The purportedly future horrors depicted in Leila have been around for a while now. These include increased surveillance and the use of biometrics, and gated communities where service staff are kitted out in uniforms, frisked, and forced to use separate entrances and elevators.
The series is hard-pressed to imagine something worse than vegetarian-only housing societies (Mumbai and Chennai have them), slums that are indistinguishable from garbage dumps (nearly every Indian city has them), and the exploitation of poor female bodies to expand the families of the rich (surrogacy, anyone?). Leila seems to suggest that these inequities have deepened in this future, better-ordered world – but that is a lazy argument which claims that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Leila deploys only a few shooting sets and bare-bone visual effects to convey Aryavarta’s totalitarian world. High walls on the horizon represent the barriers that separate the fortunate few from the unfortunate many. The locations are emptied of people (India’s population problem appears to have been fixed), and armed guards are everywhere (though never when Shalini gets up to her tricks).
A shopping mall in one of the episodes has barely any consumers (Aryavarta seems to have destroyed the retail economy along with much else). At a shopping centre where Shalini meets her brother-in-law, the shopfront for a cousin of the shirting brand Peter England is visible (it’s called Parker England), as is a mobile and laptop repair shop.
The gadgetry of 2047 doesn’t seem to have advanced very much. Aryavarta won’t impress those who hope that India will be a technological superpower 20 years from now. CCTVs should have been everywhere, but they are not, making Shalini’s quest that much easier.
The housing zones, replete with high-rises and mansions, suggest that the architectural imagination hasn’t kept pace with Aryavarta’s ambitions either. The capital of Aryavarta has the low-rise brick houses and crammed shopfronts that dot Delhi’s suburbs and exurbs. It’s almost comforting to learn that in 2047, tea is still brewed in the classic way.
Perhaps the classification of Leila, despite its claims, as post-apocalyptic fiction is a mistake. The series works best not when it is pointing to the possible future, but when it is commenting on the new India that so many of us are trying to grapple with. Both Prayaag Akbar’s book and its screen adaptation serve up a timely cautionary tale on the rise of creeping totalitarian thought, but the series needed to have worked harder to translate the writer’s spare language into plausible visuals.
Dystopian fiction on the screen has fared poorly in India, partly because filmmakers are not often able to build whole new worlds from scratch. The bigger reason is that the Indian present has always been frightening enough. Filmmakers down the years have only needed to look over their shoulders or around them. The death of love and dreams in Gharonda (1977), the moral vacuum of rival business clans in Kalyug (1981), the corruption of an honest police officer in Ardh Satya (1983), the self-imposed isolation of a forest guard unable to deal with the outside world in Paltadacho Munis (2009), and the honour killing of inter-caste lovers in Sairat (2016) do not need the crutch of speculative fiction or fancy visual tricks to be effective.
In Leila, the most horrifying vision of the future isn’t to be found in the production design. More chilling than the purification rituals and the chips embedded in people’s wrists is the destruction of India’s most famous monument by the beaming architects of Aryavarta. The scene refers to a traumatic event from the 1990s, and suggests that it can and will happen again, in another form. In this moment, the writing and the visual effects powerfully come together to prove that in a dystopia, seeing is believing.