Netflix's 'Leila' Never Becomes the Sharp Political Dystopian Series It Wants to Be
A family is huddled around the television. They watch in stunned silence as a controlled demolition of the Taj Mahal takes place on screen (or, more accurately, one of those hologram projections ubiquitous in visual representations of the future) while cheers erupt in the background. It's a haunting image in Netflix's six-episode dystopian series Leila, the streaming service's latest attempt to ensnare Indian audiences. Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta lends her considerable skills to this uneven Hindi-language drama adapted by Urmi Juvekar from journalist Prayaag Akbar's critically acclaimed novel of the same name.
Leila begins in 2047, a hundred years after India's independence. Reeling under a water crisis, the country has organized itself into a militarized Hindu state called Aryavarta, a term for the Indian subcontinent straight out of Sanskrit theological texts. In an unnamed city where caste and religious communities are segregated into sectors, a wealthy family has their idyl shattered by the Repeaters, a government authorized paramilitary group. The Hindi protagonist Shalini (Huma Qureshi) is dragged away as her Muslim husband Riz is murdered in front of her eyes and their daughter, Leila, cowers in a corner. Shalini is enlisted in a purity camp for upper-caste Hindu women like her who are cleansed for the sin of having married outside their caste and religion, and conditioned into becoming obedient daughters of Aryavarta. Yet, all Shalini thinks about as two years pass is escaping and tracking down Leila.
There are more than a few shades of The Handmaid's Tale in Leila, but the show, by design, is not about patriarchy but religious totalitarianism. The first two episodes directed by Mehta are its strongest, recognizing the deification and dehumanization of women as intrinsic to this totalitarian project. They are also the only episodes that seem to be interested in the compromised choices and complicated relationships of kinship and duplicity that emerge among women under institutionalized Hinduism. It's fertile territory for Mehta who has explored Sapphic love and female solidarity under Hindu patriarchy in Fire (1996) and the Oscar-nominated Water (2005).
Even as Qureshi's sublime performance anchors the show, the subsequent episodes on which Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar divide up directing duties, are disappointing. Leila is, in many ways, more prosaic than the striking novel it is based on. Despite its dystopian beats, Akbar's novel gains its power from being a perceptive parable about class and caste privilege in India. The show, beholden to Netflix's binge-watching formula, favors acceleration over mood. If The Handmaid's Tale has an uncanny ability to move around in circles, Leila's grave mistake is to bite off more plot than it can chew. Within the span of six episodes, Shalini manages multiple escapes, allies herself with Bhanu, a sympathetic labor camp guard, and becomes a mole for a group of renegades who seek information on the Skydome, an ambitious government project that fortifies the city from toxic air and volatile temperatures. Rather than opening up the narrative, it makes the world of the show set in a city marked by sky-high walls feel tiny, like it takes place in a single backlot.
Leila doesn't even commit to its thriller elements satisfactorily. It feels both hasty and lethargic. Worse, the series ends on a cliffhanger replete with the most depressing possible closing line. That said, some of the show's best moments are hopeful ones where characters forge connections in the midst of this despondency. In the second episode, Shalini has a warm maternal rapport with Roop, a young girl from the slum who is leading her to the home of her in-laws. In another episode, Shalini and Rao, the second-in-command of Aryavarta, discuss Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Urdu poet with Marxist leanings whose poetry has been banned in Aryavarta. These interactions electrify Leila.
The show is also filled with deft touches like the shopkeeper who switches around his double-sided portrait of Gandhi with Joshi, the bespectacled smiling leader of Aryavarta. A politico warily notes, "First there was only Joshi. Now everyone has become a Joshi."
At a time when some of the biggest hits on the Indian silver screen are jingoistic potboilers, Leila, despite its surface-level nods to the Hindu nationalist politics of the current government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can feel novel. Twitter is littered with accusations of the show's 'Hinduphobia.' Last October, there were reports that representatives of streaming services in India such as Netflix and Prime Video had quietly met with the Ministry of Broadcasting and agreed to self-censor their content, a move towards pacifying the government in a country where online content isn't yet subject to the repressive mandates of the Censor Board. Under this political climate, it's no surprise that the show feels neutered. Sexual violence and Pakistan aren't brought up, and despite the show's color scheme of yellows, it is very careful not to evoke the specific shade of saffron used by the BJP.
In a country where over 30% of the population lives under $2 a day, Leila speaks to a Netflix audience that can afford a $7 monthly subscription fee. It's hard, then, not to have a lingering sense of uneasiness that shows like it can exist only by branding themselves as dystopian to a privileged few. In May, the BJP came back to power in India with a thumping majority, selling themselves through military strikes against Pakistan and economic progress. The past five years have seen a series of lynchings of Muslim men by right-wing mobs. This summer, Chennai, the city I live in, has one of its worst water shortages in years and people jostling for water outside a tanker is a common sight.
"Whose progress? Whose country?" is spray-painted on a wall in Leila. As we are constantly reminded, Aryavarta's future is India's present. Akbar's novel ends with a gut punch reminding us that what is a dystopia for some are utopias for others, the ones who control the power. The show, however, ignores those thorny moral dilemmas without offering us the promise of subversion. Why construct a dystopia that pilfers from the horrors of the present if it doesn't address our complicity in it, nor allow us an escape through the easy catharsis of hope?