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‘Leila’: Mother, interrupted

  • Prayaag Akbar’s dystopian novel has been adapted as a Netflix series
  • Huma Qureshi stars as a mother separated from her child by a puritan cult

Huma Qureshi and Siddharth in ‘Leila’.
Huma Qureshi and Siddharth in ‘Leila’.

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In 2013, after the Supreme Court overturned the Delhi high court’s decision to decriminalize same-sex love, writer Prayaag Akbar was struck by something he saw in the newspaper. “There was a photo on the front page of Times Of India of this imam, this pandit and this archbishop,” he says. “They were standing in front of the court with their arms up, exultant. It was a kind of dystopic image to me. I was like, who are these people claiming to talk for entire communities?”

This photograph was the starting point for Leila, Akbar’s 2017 novel about a mother who is taken forcibly by a totalitarian cult and kept in a purity camp, and whose sole purpose in life is to be reunited with her daughter. It’s set in an unidentified Indian city, dystopian but recognizable, with different communities segregated and sequestered behind unscalable walls. Everyone lives in fear of The Council, the all-powerful body whose motto is “Purity for all”, which abducts and brainwashes those who don’t live up to that standard. Last year, months before it won the Crossword Book Award for fiction in December, it was announced that it would be adapted as a Netflix series.

That series, also titled Leila, released on Netflix on 14 June. It has been adapted by Urmi Juvekar, who, as the writer of the Dibakar Banerjee films Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Shanghai, knows a thing or two about class-barrier satire and fraught political narratives. The other writers are Patrick Graham, who directed Netflix’s Ghoul, another dystopian Indian thriller, and Suhani Kanwar. Deepa Mehta (Fire, 1947: Earth) directed the first two of the six episodes and is the show’s creative executive producer; the other episodes were divided between Shanker Raman (Gurgaon) and Pawan Kumar (Lucia).

Shalini is played by Huma Qureshi, best known for her debut in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012). Though she’s been in high-profile films since—with Akshay Kumar in Jolly LLB 2, Rajinikanth in Kaala—this is the first time she’s carrying a major production. The book is told from Shalini’s perspective, and, for the first three episodes, there’s hardly a scene in which Qureshi isn’t on screen.

When we meet at Taj Lands End in Bandra, Mumbai, she says the prospect of being featured this prominently was “very new, very scary, because you don’t want to bore people. What if they don’t connect with your character or your journey?” She says the workshops Mehta conducted before the shoot began, with the other two directors, the actors and Danish cinematographer Johan Heurlin Aidt, helped her find the character.

Akbar’s book is a tense 207 pages, so a six-episode series was always going to require a fleshing out of the material. But from the first three episodes, it’s clear that the series isn’t just embellishing the events of the book but instead using it as a springboard for its own story (there might be another season, though this isn’t confirmed).

There’s a deviation from the source right at the start. In the book, Shalini is dragged from her family when Council thugs gatecrash a house party, while in the series the military-style break-in occurs when she’s with her husband and daughter in their swimming pool. You can see why the makers would opt for this—it’s terrifying, and neater—but the messiness of the book scene has a point: it’s supposed to be a public shaming, not a covert operation.

The biggest change—aside from the addition of an intriguing new character, Bhanu (smartly played by Siddharth), an agent whose path crosses Shalini’s—is the series’ imagined setting of “Aryavarta”. The term has specific historico-religious connotation—“Aryavarta” is how some ancient Hindu texts refer to the subcontinent. Even today, the term pops up from time to time, especially when the idea of India as an Aryan homeland is being discussed. Last year, Ghoul had envisioned an India under extreme right-wing rule. Leila doesn’t lean as far in this direction, but the implication is the same, given the saffron headgear the women sport and the Sanskritized Hindi that’s spoken by the camp ideologue played by Arif Zakaria. “Aryavarta was a surprise to me,” says Akbar (who isn’t involved with the show), adding that he would prefer to talk about the book. “The Council was a coalition of socioreligious elites who come together. It’s not about a particular ideology in the book, it’s about how certain people can capture a state.”

Qureshi (centre) with director Deepa Mehta (right) on set.
Qureshi (centre) with director Deepa Mehta (right) on set.

Mehta, credited as creative executive producer, came on board before the writing was complete but after the “bible”—a screenwriter’s term for a document that contains all essential information about the series—was created (Juvekar, executive producer, was not present during the media interactions and declined our interview request). She directed the first two episodes, essentially setting the tone for the series, a practice that is common on international series, where a high-profile director is often hired to kick-start proceedings. Though Leila starts to spin new subplots by the end of the first episode, the series is faithful to the book’s spare, stark voice. “I hate loud flourishes,” Mehta says. “The idea of anyone giving lectures is anathema to me. The way you can be true to the book is to keep it very sparse.”

Leila is notably muted, both in performance and design. The reddish garments the women in camp wear recall the dresses in The Handmaid’s Tale, a comparison you’d think this series wouldn’t want to bring upon itself. The most expressive element is often the camera, which follows the action and gets right up in the characters’ personal space, something Qureshi says happened right from rehearsal. Aidt, who also shot the Netflix limited series Delhi Crime (2019), was behind the camera for all six episodes; Mehta and he decided to use only certain lenses throughout for consistency. “It was so fluid,” Mehta says of his camerawork. “Johan and Huma carried the show.” “I have never seen any DoP who participates in the scene like an actor,” Qureshi agrees. Doing a scene in which she had to cry, she looked up and noticed the camera shaking; Aidt was crying too.

With its water wars and walled-off communities, Leila offers a plausible, if alarming, vision of our future. Dystopian fiction is a thriving genre abroad—Netflix alone offers a deluge of titles. It’s new to India, though. Apart from Ghoul, which offered up a pulpier vision of Leila’s broken India, and films like Matrubhoomi (2003) and Island City (2015), there hasn’t been much home-grown dystopian fiction. “I don’t think (the viewer) has seen it coming from India,” Mehta says. “It’s nice to be the first.”

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