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.