Creator: Urmi Juvekar
Directors: Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman, Pawan Kumar
Cast: Huma Qureshi, Siddharth, Arif Zakaria, Rahul Khanna, Adarsh Gourav
It's no surprise that the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe has fuelled, and renewed, an interest in dystopian art. The disaster movie, a product of environmental dystopia, has become smarter. The zombie-apocalypse movie, a product of human dystopia, has become scarier and funnier. But it has been a double-edged sword for sociopolitical dystopia. The sociopolitical dystopian drama is, by definition, a far more innovative ornamentation of truth than its cultural sibling, the propaganda movie. Whereas the latter believes it is merely an accessible language of fact, the former thrives on a heightened degree of fiction. But it's this degree of fiction – the conception of an alternate universe to reflect the present one, the stark tonal flourishes, the dramatization of intolerance and communalism and systematic misogyny – that seems to have become a little less imaginative and a little too familiar. It has begun to merge with, rather than react to, our sense of reality. For example, even shows like House of Cards and Veep, for no fault of their own, have lost their genre and turned into a not-so-shocking documentation of American politics. The atrocities and the jokes write themselves these days, and creators have to work harder to remain relevant.
The reason The Handmaid's Tale is so difficult to watch, and therefore an emblematic work of modern dystopia, is because the show, despite its obvious commentary, still manages to evoke a large chasm between fact and fiction. Not unlike a Children of Men, it understands that the reality it chooses to adapt is already morbid enough, which is why there's a dialled-up horror about the landscape that simultaneously convinces us of its novelty as a genre vehicle. Leila, a series based on the award-winning book by Prayaag Akbar, is more or less located in the Indian version of the same universe. The fate of a woman is dystopia's readymade pivot. Even the narrative is similarly designed: It intersperses the central plot, of an enslaved widow (Huma Qureshi, as Shalini) in search of her "mixed-blood" daughter, with flashbacks of the calm before the storm. The arc isn't very different either: Shalini, once the prosperous mistress of her own bungalow, is soon recruited as a nanny in the household of a top government honcho.
But you sense that the country's current scenario is such that even this specific future – the year 2047, India now a Hindu extremist nation called Aryavarta, water shortage riots, communities gated off from each other, 'welfare' centers for impure women, and a sunless, diseased air – is too mild in imagination to frame a radical leftist view of our times. The hook of the backdrop isn't as original as, say, the supernaturalism of Ghoul, the vigilantism of V for Vendetta or the patriarchal savagery of The Handmaid's Tale. The first three episodes, now streaming on Netflix, are evidence that Leila struggles to rise above the details of its dystopia. The filmmakers seem to be so obsessed with the morbid physicality of their world that they overlook the universality of its mother-daughter core. As a result, you see episodes written, and segregated, according to the information they aim to impart rather than the emotional turmoil of the protagonist. It doesn't help that Shalini's mental state is mostly depicted by stilted conversations with her dead Muslim husband (Rahul Khanna) – melancholic exchanges that might have sounded better as whispers in our own heads while interpreting Prayaag Akbar's literature.
All you see, then, is Shalini occupying various environments – an agonizing welfare camp in the first episode, an on-the-run romp through the slums in the second, a brutal labour camp in the third – because the makers want you to notice the geography, the apocalyptic grey skies, the omnipresent portraits of supreme leader Mr. Joshi (Sanjay Suri in an Ambedkar-ish pose), the "Bal Joshi" cartoons, the snazzy technology, the robotic 'Aryavarta' chants and the brainwashed silences. A better show might have played on the metaphorical sequence of her arc. After all, domestic training followed by "labour" and lifelong servitude essentially defines the graph of suppressed (Indian) womanhood. But Leila has the Sacred Games problem: No time is spent in any of these spaces to service her character development, her numbing and torture – almost as if the writers, who are over-familiar with the psychology of the book, automatically expect the viewers to internalize its subtext.
Consequently, we don't feel her tormented journey in her years at the welfare center. A girl is married off to a dog, another commits suicide, another fails the purity test, but they feel like mere markers of Shalini's 50-minute phases. We don't feel her pain between these episodes. We don't feel enough of her upper-caste privilege (again, perhaps not yet) and intercaste marriage to inform our empathy with her tragic ironies. Not very encouraging is also the fact that just as Leila takes off in the third episode – with Shalini spying around, taking risks and discovering secrets – there's a long-drawn mall sequence whose suspense is too incoherent to promise a premise in motion. It's like we are told that something intriguing is unfurling on screen, but we aren't exactly aware of why it is supposed to be intriguing.
Much of Leila's striking mood is down to its cloudy visual palette, which I suspect is the influence of co-director Shanker Raman, whose photographic eye had informed the dystopian dread of his feature-film debut Gurgaon. But Shalini remains more of a device to reveal this atmosphere instead of the other way around. For instance, when she escapes her supervisor (Siddharth), she chooses hideouts where the Aryavarta radio station is in full swing. She runs through bylanes that advertise slogans and remnants of a previous India. She often finds herself at high vantage points so that the anatomy of the city can be seen. She experiences the kind of problems that are tailored precisely to explore the cosmetics of a fractured ecosystem. The search for little Leila, at least so far, feels like an afterthought. Shalini's brief partnership with a slum-dwelling kid is a feeble attempt at reminding us of her raging motherhood. Of her sole purpose. Of her inbuilt strength to rise above the dystopia and look for her utopia. Of the fact that this fiction is called Leila…and not 2047 or 2019.