Netflix Review: ‘Leila’ offers a frightening fictional glimpse into India under draconian rule

Updated 19 June 2019
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Netflix Review: ‘Leila’ offers a frightening fictional glimpse into India under draconian rule

CHENNAI: Netflix’s original six-episode series, “Leila,” is an unflinching look at a fictional futuristic India run under a draconian political, social and cultural structure.

Adapted from Prayaag Akbar’s novel of the same title, and directed by Deepa Mehta (known for bold films such as “Fire,” “Earth” and “Water”), Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar, “Leila” is set in 2047, a century after the country had gained independence from the British Empire, and is a daring take on what India could become if authoritarianism and radical forces had their way.

India, in “Leila,” is called Aryavarta, a dictatorial state ruled by Joshi (Sanjay Suri) with the help of a ruthless police force, where painful segregation of people on the basis of religion, caste and economic status is routine. They are separated by formidably tall walls to ensure purity of race.

Children of mixed parentage are whisked away from parents, and women who marry outside their religion are sent to places resembling concentration camps, where they are reformed and re-educated.

One of them is Shalini (Huma Qureshi), whose marriage to Rizwan (Rahul Khanna) outside her community is branded a crime. Her little daughter, Leila, is taken away, and her husband murdered.

The series follows the distraught mother as she goes looking for the girl. Hurt and humiliated by a draconian administration which relies on thugs and a highly intrusive surveillance system to maintain order, Shalini befriends a state-appointed minder, Bhanu (Siddharth).

Penned by Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kawar and Patrick Graham, the series is slightly different from the book, and runs like a thriller showing chases, brawls for water (“Bandit Queen” director Shekhar Kapur had once wanted to make a movie on water wars, but could not) and torturous living conditions in filthy slums.

Qureshi portrays flashes of brilliance as a deeply troubled woman who pines for her child, but her character is often roadblocked in her quest by an unfeeling regime with a zero-tolerance approach to dissent.

Order is enforced through inhuman forms of punishment, and at one point Shalini has to roll over plates of half-eaten food.

With Netflix outside the purview of sometimes rigid Indian censorship rules, Mehta and the other directors have been able to present most graphically a scenario that is well within the realms of possibility.


Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins. (Supplied)
Updated 23 July 2019
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Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

  • Inside the Emirati artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in London, ‘I Met a Traveler From an Antique Land’

LONDON: You are searching for treasure. Several potential locations are marked with an ‘x’ on your map. You move methodically from site to site, always to be met with disappointment — never striking gold. Are you, in following trails set by others, missing the treasure ‘hidden’ in plain view?

This is one of the conundrums posed in the artworks of Sheikha Alyazia Bint Nahyan Al-Nahyan, whose inaugural solo exhibition in London presented a thought-provoking range of work fusing the ancient past with modern life.

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins, reflecting Arab, Roman and Phoenician influences. She described the coins, embedded in the marble, as symbolic of the great treasures buried in secret locations that were sought out and fought over by many. 

Al-Nahyan named her exhibition — held at Pi Artworks from June 25 to July 7 — with the opening line of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias”: “I met a traveler from an antique land.” (Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.)

Mishmash Dirham. (Supplied) 

The poem, published in 1818, imagines a meeting between the narrator and a traveller who describes a ruined statue lying in the desert. The description of the statue is a meditation on the fragility of human power and on the effects of time: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains: round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Maybe a positive thing from looking to the past is that it proves it is only human to repeat the mistake and the lesson,” Al-Nahyan told Arab News. “Studying the past is a realization of human nature, individually or in groups, right or wrong. This natural feeling of connectivity is something I usually aim for.”

There is humor in some of her work — particularly the depictions of old commercial airline advertisements from the 1950s and 60s with ancient figures superimposed in the frames. They certainly give the viewer pause for thought about how much our world has changed in the short time since air travel became widely available.

The exhibition’s curator, Janet Rady, said of Al-Nahyan: “She has been practicing art from a very young age and is self-taught. She is incredibly talented, and you see this in the wide range of her work, which uses all sorts of different media. I can’t necessarily call her a pop artist or a collage artist or an installation artist; she is in fact all of these things, but it is the concept behind her work — connecting the past with the present — which is important.”

The UAE’s UK ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, was present at the opening and he particularly admired Al-Nahyan’s works based on the classic wooden board game Carrom paired with a modern video game.

Carrom Station in Motion. (Supplied) 

“I first played Carrom with my cousins as a boy, and she has combined it with modern computer games, which is very creative,” he said. He pointed out that her innovative work ties in well with the dynamic of the UAE.

“Next year we have EXPO 2020, with its theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’ It’s very much about our roots and how we take them forward, how we develop the mind and global cooperation,” he said. 

The exhibition included a short clip from Al-Nahyan’s upcoming film “Athel,” written by Al-Nahyan’s sister, Sheikha Shamsa. It centers on a strange encounter in the desert between a pre-Islamic poet and a modern-day TV presenter. “Athel” is set for release later this year and stars Hala Shiha and Mansour Al-Fili.

“The idea behind it all is taken from the tradition of Arabic poetry — its wisdom and, sometimes, risks,” Al-Nahyan explained. “And ending with a realization of one tribal law putting redemption and family before all.” She added that there are some “light-hearted” moments in the film too.

Arabic poetry is an ongoing inspiration for Al-Nahyan’s work, adding another layer of meaning to many of her pieces.

“The Arabic language is poetic, and Arabs and other cultures around the world have documented their lives through poetry,” she said. “So, for example, when tackling the topic of what is considered treasure, we found different meanings in various verses. Like when (pre-Islamic poet) Zuhair Bin Abi Salma refers to glory as the only true treasure.”

There is a much to absorb and reflect on in this exhibition which opens windows into many facets of Arab history and culture and poses universal questions about humanity and what constitutes real treasure.