Take the super hit, multiple-Emmy-winning The Handmaid’s Tale; throw in a bit of the Hunger Games and Divergent series; add a touch of the whimsical movie, 1984;mix in Nazism’s obsession with purity of race; blend in massive doses of alleged right-wing religious fanaticism (the favourite whipping boy of supposedly-evolved content creators in India, guaranteed to get instantaneous attention from the so-called intelligentsias of the country); and what do you get?
A supremely scrambled web series called Leila, that’s what.
Touted as the first truly dystopian Indian Original show, Leila is anything but. It’s neither original – Hollywood-inspired would be a more apt term to describe it; nor is it quite so dystopian – many of the concepts it depicts are already rampant at various places in the world.
That notwithstanding, Leila is also bereft of the gut-wrenching, deeply-disturbing visuals that marked the aforementioned shows/flicks. It thus fails to provoke the eerie sense of foreboding and compelling ominousness that made them such riveting watches. If anything, a mild ennui sets in as the initial curiosity in the world-building wears off.
Leila has been adapted by Urmi Juvekar from Prayaag Akbar’s novel of the same name. Shanker Raman, Deepa Mehta and Pawan Kumar share direction duties. Alokanand Dasgupta has delivered the background music for the series.
Set in the near future, Leila starts off with a fascinating proposition – that of a dystopia with environmental connotations. But as one becomes aware of the countless similarities with its dystopian predecessors, as also its religion-centric narrative, the premise doesn’t seem so fascinating anymore. After all, Ghoul and Sacred Games, both on the same platform, had a similar axe to grind with the dominant religion in the country.
And now that that’s said and done with, let’s get back to the premise of the series.
Circa 2047: The worst fears of environmentalists have come true. The world is going through a devastating lack of water (a la Waterworld, V for Vendetta, Solarbabies and a zillion others). Drinking water is a commodity that has gotten progressively scarce, hence expensive. The air is heavy with pollution that is thick enough to blot out the sun.
Exactly 100 years after it gained identity as an independent nation, India as a country has ceased to exist. To be replaced by a dark, dismal world called Aryavarta. This new nation is ruled by a supreme religious leader called Joshiji (Sanjay Suri), who commands unquestioning devotion from his brainwashed subjects.
Aryavarta is a country marked by tall walls that separate its people on the basis of religion, caste and class. Rich, upper-class Hindus live in one sector, Muslims in another, and so on. The moneyed residents of these sectors can buy water at will and live a life that is insulated from hazardous pollution.
Beyond the walls is a different story altogether. Lawlessness rules outside the walls. This is a grey zone, marked by slums, abject poverty, humungous mounds of filth and daily scrimmaging for water. Even the rain that falls here is black as tar. The residents of this zone are the doosh – the castaways (a veiled reference to dalits, maybe?).
Aryavarta is ruled by a totalitarian regime, obsessed with purity of race. In the new world order, Hindus and Muslims aren’t allowed to mate or marry. Any child borne of such a union is whisked away by the state, to be enlisted into the ominous-sounding Project Balee. Such children are termed as ‘mishrit’. By eliminating children of mixed lineage, the state intends to breed a race that is absolutely pure and untainted with the blood of another religion.
Women are the most traumatized lot in the sickeningly patriarchal Aryavarta. The regime runs a VanitaMukti Kendra, lorded over by the authoritarian Guru Ma (Arif Zakaria), where fallen women are tortured into submitting to the ways of Aryavarta. Their sins?Demanding a share in the family property, marrying outside their religion, having a child out of wedlock and more.
The Mukti Kendra is a forbidding, suffocating place, where the women are made to chant repressive mantras such as “merajanm hi merakarmhai”, which roughly translates to, “My birth dictates my destiny”.
Shalini Rizwan Chaudhary (Huma Qureshi) is one such woman who has sinned in the eyes of the law. She is a Hindu married to a Muslim man, Rizwan Choudhary (Rahul Khanna), with a young daughter, the eponymous, Leila. The Choudharys enjoy all the perks that money can buy in Aryavarta. While the masses outside fight for water, they enjoy swims in their luxurious swimming pool.
Shalini’s world turns upside down one day, when their plush home is attacked by the Repeaters, the righteous soldiers who strive to impose the decree of Joshiji. Rizwan is murdered, Shalini is forcibly taken away to the Vanita Mukti Kendra and Leila is kidnapped, whisked away to an unknown destination. The rest of the story hinges on Shalini’s search for Leila, her rebellion against the oppressive regime, and her reluctant deployment into a plot to dethrone Joshiji and restore the old world order.
A significant fact that weighs heavily against the series is its blatant similarities with The Handmaid’s Tale. From tiny details such as the colour of the women’s clothes – red for the women at the VanitaMukti Kendra and brown for the worker women, all juxtaposed against a stark and dismal background; the flashbacks that depict the difference between before and after Aryavarta (Shalini’s previous life, the destruction of the TajMahal here; June’s previous life, the destruction of the White House and Pentagon in The Handmaid’s Tale), down to the way most scenes have been shot – in tight close-ups. There are gazillion similarities between the two, in the story and its treatment, which, after a point of time, start getting on one’s nerves.
Leila is also pulled down by the lack of a strong, evocative screenplay. The writing is sloppy and half-baked. The world, set in 2047, is as far removed from futuristic as 2019 is from 1989. Nothing, just nothing, seems to suggest that this world we are viewing is set in 2047. Homes, devices, cars – everything is just like 2019. Maybe the writers are unaware that the world has already gravitated towards self-driving and electric cars.
People in Leila still dial numbers on their handsets, when even today, in 2019, more and more people are using the voice command feature on their smartphones or smart-home devices to dial calls, search info and operate gadgets. It’s quite certain that by 2047, everything will be accomplished by voice command.
And these are just two, very valid points we have made. From these two instances alone, we can imagine what the world will be like in 2047. How and why the writers of Leila didn’t notice or incorporate such minor pointers is beyond our scope of understanding. The series is rife with several such inconsistencies. While one may think we’re nit-picking here, it is something that irrefutably establishes the lazy writing of the series.
Also, nowhere in the narrative do we ever feel utterly horrified, shocked or stunned by the happenings on screen. It’s an indication that the screenplay needs to get sharper, crisper and more absorbing. Also, the direction needs to get tauter to grab viewers’ attention and hold it right there.
The narrative is populated by a host of diverse characters. Though interesting, each character suffers from an anomaly – none has been suitably fleshed out. Bhanu (Siddharth), purportedly, a loyal guard of Aryavarta, runs an undercover Resistance movement. Most of the time, we are hard-pressed to understand where Bhanu comes from or what makes him tick. It’s quite an underdeveloped character and seems more like an afterthought than a principal character in the story.
Madhu’s (Seema Biswas) is another character that is quite confusing. She is a labourer who lives in the labour camp and does odd jobs for the regime. We can never quite decide where her loyalties lie. She seems sympathetic and supportive towards Shalini, but works for the state in manipulating Shalini into installing a camera in the home of Dixit, architect of the ambitious Skydome project. In an utterly confusing sequence, she is then caught for possessing illegal stuff and banished to a punishment posting of hard labour. Why is the search conducted at the labour camp, who orders it and many such similar questions remain a mystery.
Rao Saheb (Akash Khurana) is yet another baffling character. He is one of the founding fathers of Aryavarta, but is disgruntled with Joshiji’s totalitarian rule. We are never made privy to the whys and wherefores of his disenchantment, or the cause of his hatred for Joshiji. It’s one of the least fleshed-out characters of the series – one among many – including that of the lynchpin, Joshiji – the man himself. We know next to nothing about Joshiji. He is introduced in person only in the last few minutes of the last episode of the season. The rest of the time, he is omnipresent in the form of his images, looming larger-than-life out of the gazillion giant-sized banners and posters that dot Aryavarta.
For that matter, even Shalini’s characterization leaves much to be desired. She is curiously expressionless and emotionless through much of the narrative. The scene where she sights Leila is a serious let-down. Honestly, one would expect a more intense display of emotion from a woman who’s just come face to face with the daughter she had taken to be dead. She seems to be operating on automaton most of the time, whatever be the place or situation.
Net result is that we never feel invested in the characters or the plot at any juncture of the story. On the contrary, we feel a strange disconnect with the characters and events unfolding on screen, with nary an iota of empathy or relatability with either. The series also lacks the ability to draw out a horrified reaction from viewers. Only once in the entire show did we feel a tinge of horror at the proceedings – when Kanika leaps to her death in the very first episode. And even that sequence is a modified version of Ofwarren’s suicide attempt in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The narrative is hell-bent on portraying just one thing – the oppressiveness of the right-wing religious regime. As a result, the rest of the story remains undeveloped and amateurish, evoking a sense of déjà vu.
Lastly, because it must be said, the production values of the show are appalling, to say the least. It seems to have been made on quite a low budget, thus hampering the show by its lack of visual appeal and authenticity of the settings.
One may think that we’re being excessively critical of Leila or being loftily unjust by constantly comparing it to an American show. Guilty as charged. But point to be noted, Milord – as said by the redoubtable Bill Gates, the world today is a global village. We, in India, more than ever before, have been exposed to the wonders of the internet and the multitude of incredible shows streaming on it. And obviously, having tasted Biryani, we certainly won’t settle for mere dal-chawal.
Also, Netflix is a streaming giant, the leader of the pack so to say, with deep pockets and infinite influence. For a platform that has given us the seminal Sacred Games, we expect much more than what it has delivered in the garb of India’s first ‘original’ dystopian series. Hardly an utopian scenario, if we must say so.
We rest our case.
In the meanwhile, 2.5/5 is our rating for Leila.