Leila Is A Terrifying Yet Mesmerizing Vision Of The Future

Leila (Netflix India), 6  Episodes

Starring: Huma Qureshi, Siddharth,  Rahul Khanna,  Seema Biswas, Arif Zakaria

Directed by: Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman, Pawan Kumar

Rating: ****(4 stars)

 In  the beginning there is the swimmingpool. A splashy symbol of the  uppercrust’s affluence  that’s  rapidly making the  poor, poorer

Deepa Mehta’s disturbingly  devtastating dystopian drama begins   with a  happy family  Mother, Father ,Child splashing in the  pool. Within the  first  five  minutes the mood swerves away from joy and Shalini, the protagonist whose journey we follow from episode to enrapturing episode of  acute pain and limited joy, finds herself alone in an clinical ashram that resembles the shelter  home  in Muzaffarpur where young girls  simply disappeared when they  didn’t obey the elders’s salacious orders.

Except , that  there is no sex in this world of  sterile religiosity and  puerile  purification. Emulating the  Nazi model of an emotion-less concentration camp  Deepa Mehta’s futuristic world  of emotionless totalitarianism  is grim,joyless,  and utterly terrifying. Those women in dull  crimson sarees moving around zombielike  in  a place  of perverse  purification run by a slimy  religious  freak(Ariz Zakaria, breathing  toxicity) reminded me of   Margaret Atwood’s  The Handmaid’s Tale.

The  difference being, the world that Deepa Mehta’s  emotionally vandalized  characters inhabit is far more imminent and immediate and catastrophic. Wisely  Mehta’s writers Urmi Juvekar,Suhani Kanwar,Patrick Graham have avoided any true-life  political or religion  references. But the  colour saffron, though used sparingly, is ‘Om’nipresent ,  and nowhere more so than in the first episode.The cinematography  is so austere and  colourless  it feels like a painting that  has bled itself  to  a blur.

 One  of  the  many  assets of this gem of a picaresque  series  is that it makes radical shifts  of location in every episode , putting the protagonist Shalini in places  where her feminine wile and  maternal instincts  come into play with sinister consequences.  Huma Qureshi captures every heartbeat  of  the  mother’s  search  for her missing daughter . Her face  caught in tight close-ups displays enormous fortitude and  hope in the midst of  abject despair.This is  Huma’s  moment of  resurrection .

In  the second episode  she befriends a female street urchin  with whom she wades through heaps  of garbage to escape  a seemingly dangerous  government agent Bhanu(Siddharth) who ,predictably, seems to harbor  a soft corner  for  the woman he’s supposed to  capture and probably kill.This  is  my least favourite  episode with the  little girl from the chawl over-doing the cutesie act and  almost parodying the sympathy card.

Siddharth, habitually reliable (and quite effective in Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children) here fails to  register his character’s tonal ambivalence.But  the  other Deepa Mehta favourite Seema  Biswas is excellent as a wheeler dealer with a sympathetic  heart who helps the heroine whenever it suits her.I wish there  was more of Biswas in the series. But then this is world where everything is rationed.

This is a series that keeps us watching  till the  devastating finale  . I won’t say it’s done without emotional  manipulation. There are points in the plot where the narrative cleverly  modulates  its tone to  hold our attention. But  we  don’t mind . Leila is an epic saga which conveys  a lot more than the  fear  of  the  corroding spirit  of radicalism that has seeped  into a  social fabric. It’s the story of   racial segregation and cultural  nihilism told in  a deceptively calm tone  with  a brutal force and  feral persuasiveness.

 It’s amazing how well  Huma Qureshi holds the plot together, going from grieving mother to cunning survivor  in the midst of  a religious ,cultural and political chaos that we all would recognize  hoping that the world Deepa has created for the future would somehow cancel itself out. Leila makes  us think grimly about the  future.Bleak and  scary as  it may be, there is still hope  in that smile that lights  up Qureshi’s Shalini ‘s eyes  every time she  thinks of her husband(Rahul Khanna) and  child.

There  is a moment when  just before  being  captured she slaps  a man who has betrayed  her trust.The  sound of that slap reverberates across Deepa Mehta’s world  smothered in  terror and treachery.Leila is  a savage ode to a lost world. It must be seen by every  Indian  as  a timely warning. That  glass of water that you are sipping right now  could be your last.

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