The opening shot of Leila is an upside-down frame of a posh home — all with an indoor swimming pool and a happy family. This subtly lays the premise of how Leila’s world is like ours, yet is an antithesis of the relative freedom we have afforded ourselves in this age.
Set in a dystopian future, the series follows Shalini (Huma Qureshi) who is in pursuit of her daughter abducted by the regime for being ‘mishrit’ or a ‘mixed blood’. With an oppressive regime as the backdrop, Leila manages to create a world that amplifies all our fundamental insecurities with respect to the establishment.
Based on Prayag Akbar’s novel on the same name, the show condenses complex plot-lines due to obvious screen limitations. However, it does manage to make a bold statement, given the socio-political climate it has been thrown into. The lack of positive highs, and overall gritty undertone often makes the show uncomfortable to watch, but it is one which we must — owing to how relevant this cautionary tale is.
The show holds a dark mirror to our current socio-political scenario.
The scariest thing about Leila is not its grim narrative but the fact that it is way too real for our comfort. In the year 2047, the nation is called Aryavarta and is rigidly divided on religion and caste lines. Each community lives in their assigned sector surrounded by large walls and intermingling across these lines leads to unspeakable punishments.
Amidst the dictatorial regime, one offender is the ‘liberal’ Shalini who does the grave crime of marrying a Muslim. And her life completely goes into a tizzy once her felony is discovered by the regime. Her child is taken away from her for being the product of an inter-faith marriage and Shalini is reduced to a life of imprisonment and suffering.
In terms of narrative choice, the show handpicks current socio-political issues and amplifies it to the extent of becoming horror. Portrayed brilliantly by a child who’s also Shalini’s unlikely ally (but of lower birth), her self-awareness and acceptance are both heartbreaking and terrifying.
While the show presents one horrific scenario after another, the most disturbing thing about it is perhaps the facility where women are meant to reform and conform to the current social order. Worse still, is how it is only a slightly exaggerated version of how women are treated even today. Their confinement, force-feeding medication, punishment for rebellion, and more such instances are simply interpretations of what women go through in this day and age.
In terms of world-building, Leila is not as much future as it is messed up present. It scares you, but it also tells you what could go wrong if we continue with our majoritarian appeasement and quashing of dissent.
The show is a cautionary tale of what happens if we don’t mend our ways.
Apart from dictatorial totalitarianism, the show’s other overarching theme is the byproduct of our apathy with respect to the environment. Reminiscent of a Mad Max-like world, there’s rioting over clean water and even breathable air is a luxury.
What in fact, causes this glaring class-divide is the rapid depletion of resources, making it easier for dictators to divide the haves and have nots of the future.
Helmed as a commonality between now and then, the lack of non-renewable resources is presented as our society’s undoing. It is what possibly makes the story all the more convincing and frightening at the same time.
It is a well-written show, with stellar performances by the cast.
Performed by some of our erstwhile favourites — the likes of Seema Biswas and Rahul Khanna — the show takes us on tiny nostalgia trips every time they appear on screen.
The majority of the show, however, rests on the able shoulders of Huma Qureshi and Siddharth. Brilliantly performed by Qureshi, Shalini’s every emotion, angst, pain, and longing shine through amidst the murky world of this dark future.
Even the precision with which Siddharth’s complex morally ambiguous character is written is exceptional, to say the least.
In terms of successful storytelling, the six-episode saga lies somewhere in between the epic failure of GoT season 8 and the epic brilliance of Chernobyl. While it presents a world too grim and depressing, it does immediately suck you in.
Leila is not an easy show to watch, but in today’s world (especially the country we live in) it is one of the most relevant series we could’ve come across.
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