Leila Review: A Tedious Netflix Series that is Neither Political Commentary Nor Dystopian Drama

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Leila Review: A Tedious Netflix Series that is Neither Political Commentary Nor Dystopian Drama

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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t this point, Netflix’s strategy when it comes to making an original Indian series is highly unoriginal. Unlike Amazon, which has so far experimented with fresh ideas — a hinterland gangster saga (Mirzapur), a cricket drama (Inside Edge), a stalker tragicomedy (Pushpavalli), a social commentary series (Laakhon Mein Ek), and a glossy snapshot of affluent India’s obsession with weddings (Made in Heaven) — most of Netflix’s big-ticket Indian series have only been book adaptations.

It’s a gamble that has paid off in the past with Sacred Games, which didn’t just make its source material more accessible, but also broadened the scope for imaginative filmmaking. Yet since then, the streaming giant is visibly stuck in a loop of replicating that formula by adapting stories to suit the socio-cultural specificity of the country’s milieu. The trouble starts when that effort shows. Last year’s Selection Day, an insipid adaptation that was at odds with its origins — an Aravind Adiga novel bursting with small-town flavour — was proof of this strategy’s shortcomings. This week’s Leila, adapted from Prayaag Akbar’s debut dystopian novel, and co-directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman, and Pawan Kumar, continues in similar terrain. The show’s confused messaging and uneven narrative make it neither biting political commentary nor a worthy candidate for the dystopian genre.

The dissonance with Akbar’s imagination of a dystopian future is evidenced from the first episode itself. Set in 2047, where communities live segregated behind walled structures under a totalitarian regime that abducts and brainwashes at will, the story revolves around an upper-class Hindu woman’s search for the daughter who was separated from her when she was forcibly taken to a “purity camp”. Leila’s pilot, written and directed by Deepa Mehta, reduces the expansive length and breadth of this dystopian universe to mere information on its opening title slates. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, a comparison that the show frequently evokes with its muted production design and maroon uniforms, Leila doesn’t prioritise explaining the transformation of its physical world or at the very least, expanding on it. This decision, not only takes away from the specific curiosity that the foreign world of Leila can evoke, but also betrays a hurried arrogance on the part of the show’s makers.

Instead of “seeing” the distinctiveness of this new world, we are left to glean from the text on screen that Leila’s universe is set in “Aryavarta” (a term used in ancient Hindu texts to denote parts of an Aryan subcontinent) whose leader Dr Joshi (Sanjay Suri) is the architect behind this segregation: Cities are divided into sectors with unscalable walls here and each sector has one community that is free to practice their beliefs. The next slate informs us that clean water has now become a luxury.

Leila’s biggest drawback is that its world-building, even with the predictable flashbacks, can’t stand on its own.

This bare approach of “telling” instead of “showing” is taken forward in the opening sequence where Leila’s elite Hindu protagonist, Shalini (a sincere Huma Qureshi), her Muslim husband, Riz (Rahul Khanna) and their three-year-old daughter are interrupted by a group of goons during an afternoon swim inside their house. Riz’s brutal murder and Shalini’s abduction happens indoors, a deviation from the book, where it unfolds in a public setting. Instead of setting the tone for the series, this version infantilises its premise, making Shalini’s tragedy seem like an outcome of a personal grudge, and not an extension of a terrifying new reality.

From then, Leila fast-forwards two years (as opposed to the 16-year-separation between mother and daughter in the book): Shalini, now a ghost of her former self, is one of the many women who live at the Shram Kendra as punishment for marrying outside her community. The daily schedule of these women includes polishing shoes of the military-style security forces, lining up to take a pill supposed to numb their emotions, and snitching on each other to be shortlisted for the “purity test”, their get-out card from the camp.

Mehta dedicates the first episode to following the lives of these imprisoned women, which is essentially a mindless montage of female suffering porn: There’s a suicide, two murders, a forced abortion, a mother who is separated from her baby, a woman being punished for rebelling by being married off to a dog, and another being made to roll over half-eaten plates of food. Almost all of these scenarios are played up for shock value and add very little to our understanding of this world’s new social order. For instance, the imprisoned women live under the supervision of two transgender officers but it is unclear what hierarchy they occupy in Aryavarta. In another scene, two women break out into a fight while lining up for their daily bath and the word “doosh” is yelled out. From the reaction that the term receives, it is understood that the term is a slur, but there’s no accompanying context.

This is Leila’s biggest drawback: Its world-building, even with the predictable flashbacks, can’t stand on its own. Without any familiarity with Akbar’s novel, the series, that sacrifices complexity for presentation, becomes an incoherent mess. The proceedings of almost every episode, packed to the brim with too many themes, raise a hundred-odd questions. And throughout its six-episode run, Leila isn’t equipped to answer most of them, engaging with its ideas on a superficial level and relying a little too wholeheartedly on its audiences already being aware of the templates of the dystopian genre. As a result, the stakes in the show are at an all-time low, aided by laborious storytelling, inefficient direction, and stilted dialogues. 

Deepa Mehta dedicates the first episode of Leila to following the lives of these imprisoned women, which is essentially a mindless montage of female suffering porn.

Netflix

Moreover, it’s hard to remain invested in a show whose physical universe doesn’t come across as dystopian at all. Leila’s identifiers of the future — gated communities, social inequality, water shortages, garbage dumps, Hindu extremism, and an attack on female reproductive rights — aren’t as shocking for these are troubles that play out in present-day India with alarming regularity. Take for example, the third episode where goons raid an activist’s house, accuse him of spreading politics, throw away his books, and brand him a traitor. It’s a scene that is less futuristic and more a reflection of real life, mirroring events of last year, where intellectuals across the country were put behind bars.

Leila’s dystopia then, is hardly convincing, for it doesn’t escalate the horrors of the present; it just blindly presents a version of them. In doing so, Leila offers hardly anything new about the depravity of the future that hasn’t already been documented by paranoid headlines, disturbing real-life events, or say, your imagination. It’s a stark contrast to the clarity that last year’s Ghoul — arguably Netflix’s most original outing — brought to its version of dystopia. A fact that is even more surprising given Patrick Graham, who created Ghoul, is also one of Leila’s co-writers.

Even when Leila manages to pick up after its first three episodes, the show’s existence still remains pointless, mainly because its embellishments — including a political conspiracy, no less — sacrifice the very essence of the politics of Akbar’s book. His imagination of a hyper-segregated, intolerant state in Leila wasn’t an indictment on any particular religion or ideology, training its lens instead on the excesses of a secular state endorsing homogeneity. Its TV adaptation however, chooses to discard that nuance, and stubbornly present it as a comment on the unchecked superiority of a specific ideology. The result of this indefensible deviation is a dull, generic series that squanders its chance to predict the future in its greed to replicate the present. Netflix’s Leila, ultimately begs one question: Why adapt a book when you mount the adaptation on disregarding its contents? 

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