Leila and the world of Aryavarta: The future is here and now, and it is scary as hell
* A man in Jharkhand died after he was thrashed by a mob on suspicions of theft and forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram”, “Jai Hanuman” when they discovered he was Muslim. According to India Today, he was held for 18 hours by the gathering.
* An activist inTamil Nadu was beaten to death for objecting to a neighbour storing large quantities of water unmindful of the rest of the locality. Elsewhere in the state, a woman was stabbed in a clash over a water sump.
* Right-wing organisations in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, announced a boycott of all Muslim artistes in Hindu religious functions. They pledged to henceforth “promote Hindu artistes”, The Times of India reported.
* In Maharashtra, a Dalit boy was beaten up, stripped and made to sit on hot tiles as punishment for entering a temple space. Meanwhile, in a parched Uttar Pradesh district, water tankers are being sent only to upper-caste settlements where lathi-wielding men are preventing Dalits from approaching water pumps.
* A Muslim man was killed by the authorities and his Hindu wife tortured as retribution for marrying him. Their only child is rumoured to have been sent to a camp where organs are harvested from the offspring of inter-community marriages.
That final snippet, authentic as it sounds, is a precis of the Netflix series Leila, a fictional work set in a hypothetical land. The rest are all actual incidents reported from across India in the past month.
In a country where today’s hyperbole mirrors tomorrow’s reality though, “dystopian” is an inadequate adjective for the story of that last-mentioned Hindu-Muslim couple who are at the heart of Leila, which is now streaming online.
Based on Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 English novel of the same name, Leila has been written for the screen – in a smooth blend of Hindi and English – by Urmi Juvekar with Suhani Kanwar and Patrick Graham. It revolves around Shalini Rizwan Chowdhury nee Pathak, an upper-caste Hindu who married Rizwan, a Muslim, before segregation was rigidly enforced during the reign of the despotic Joshiji.
In the show’s opening scene set in the year 2047, Shalini (played by Huma Qureshi) is watching with affectionate indulgence as Riz (Rahul Khanna) and their little girl Leila frolic in their swimming pool. That the couple has a private pool is evidence of their wealth, as is the largeness of their house where the maid Sapna hovers in the background. This seemingly idyllic visual is disrupted by the arrival of violent intruders who rip the family apart, purportedly as reprisal for their misuse of a scarce resource – water – but in truth for another reason. In this place known as Aryavarta where water is indeed a luxury the rich can afford while the poor battle over it, citizens must now live in housing complexes strictly earmarked for specific castes and religious groups, inter-marrying is forbidden and “mischrit bachche” (children of mixed parentage) like Leila are viewed as undesirables.
Leila is about Shalini’s search for her daughter while being forced to live in humiliating, squalid conditions like all women who married outside their community.
The show is helmed by the India-born Canada-based Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta who is the series’ creative executive producer and has directed the first two of Season 1’s six episodes. The remaining four are directed by Pawan Kumar, maker of the acclaimed Kannada films Lifeu Ishtene, Lucia and U-Turn, and National Award winning cinematographer Shanker Raman who debuted as a director with 2017’s Hindi-Haryanvi feature Gurgaon.
On a warm summer afternoon in Mumbai, Mehta joins me for a conversation about Leila. Doesn’t the compulsory segregation in the story mirror the way Indians of certain social groups already choose to keep away from certain others, I ask? In that sense, is it not as much about the present as it is about a terrifying possible future? “I think every dystopian novel is actually about that time, and the extreme of that becomes dystopia,” Mehta replies, before mentioning the Canadian literary classic many critics cited while reviewing Akbar’s novel: “That’s the great thing about Gilead in Handmaid’s Tale – the seed of Gilead, the sexploitation and patriarchy is set in the ’80s when Margaret Atwood wrote the book.” In the iconic British novel 1984, Mehta reminds me, George Orwell wrote “exactly what was happening, the Cold War was on when he wrote it in the 1950s and he thought 1984 would be totalitarian, for him it was what happened in Russia”.
In a separate meeting at the same venue, Huma Qureshi dips into her stage background to describe her notion of dystopia. “In theatre,” she explains, “you do something called a clown workshop. You have a smile and you keep smiling smiling smiling, at some point that smile becomes grotesque.” The actor best known for Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur films physically demonstrates the exercise as she speaks, stretching her lips incrementally with each “smiling” until the edges of her mouth reach as close to her ears as is possible. “That is what dystopia is. The idea or thought could be quite harmless, it could be small but if you keep stretching that thought it can become extreme.”
In this context, Qureshi highlights a scene from Leila in which Shalini chides Sapna for washing her face at what looks like the kitchen sink. The mistress’ objection is not to the unsanitary use of a basin reserved for cleaning dishes (which would be a fair point, in my view), the objection she articulates is that Sapna is wasting expensive water but her subsequent actions imply an additional concern: she sprays a purifier on the area.
Qureshi says the scene prompted her to introspect. “I was talking to my Mum,” she explains, “and I was like, it’s so strange that we still keep the cups, saucers and plates of our servants who work in our house, our domestic workforce, separately. She of course had her own logic, that ‘no no, we do it because they break things or they get dirty or they don’t clean it properly’, and I said, ‘No, actually you know where it comes from? It comes from a very deep ingrained sense of untouchability.’ And my mother who is actually quite progressive was like, ‘oh my God I did not even realise that’.”
In a short interview sandwiched between my appointments with Mehta and Qureshi, in response to a question about Shalini’s prejudice, Akbar says one of his book’s intentions was “to show all of our complicity in this system, it’s not just a top-down thing”. He explains: “The reason we live in these sort of segregated towers you know like, I am talking metaphorically like, the reason we are constantly searching to isolate ourselves is because we are complicit in, you know like if you look out of this window it’s kind of a perfect Leila visual – there’s this slum, and our hotel pool is down there, just beyond it there is a, when I came in in the morning these two boys were running into the ocean and out, and that was when I saw that it was like, god, these are inescapable realities of our urban living in India.” He is referring to the geography of Mumbai where swish residential complexes and five-star hotels stand contiguous with sprawling slums, a geography “that fed into the book while I was writing it”.
Mehta quotes this comment from the legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel that she has repeated in interviews for years: The minute you’re particular is the very minute you become universal. Leila, she says, “is very particular but very universal.”
The universality of Leila comes from several particulars it has drawn from reality. In a scene featuring child slaves in a filthy, mammoth slum on the show, Mehta intentionally referenced the cages in which Donald Trump’s administration has been placing migrant children crossing into the US.
“In the script, the children were tied to little posts,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘no no no, let’s make cages for them’ because that’s the time the immigration happened and these kids were put in cages. So you borrow from the horrific nature of what’s happening in the world and bring it to the particular place, that’s when it becomes universal.”
Context counts for everything. Half a decade back, Leila’s cage children would not have had the global currency they have today because of America’s “Mad King”. In the India of 2019, Joshiji whose image is ubiquitous across Aryavarta, who appears as a gigantic hologram in a mall, whose childhood as Bal Joshi is chronicled in animation form, and whose devotee says her baby is already Joshiji’s “bhakt” resonates with a meaning these motifs did not have five years back.
Obviously those associated with Leila are aware of the risk such a series entails. When I meet them I am briefly frazzled by what I interpret as defensiveness on their part: both Qureshi and Akbar do not want to comment on the show’s approach to the book, and at first I assume they are being diplomatic to avoid offending each other or anyone involved, until my interview with Mehta gets me wondering if their hesitation to speak on even relevant subjects is just a sign of the team’s overall caution. The realisation dawns when Mehta suddenly, in the middle of a pleasant conversation, goes on the backfoot when I ask if she felt any trepidation before signing up for Leila considering her encounters with India’s fundamentalists so far. (Her 1996 film Fire, a story of lesbian love, was greeted with violence by Shiv Sena protestors claiming that homosexuality is against Indian culture. Following vandalism and threats from extremists, Water – a film about Hindu widows in Varanasi – was delayed for four years and ultimately shot in Sri Lanka with a new cast.)
“I don’t think (there is any risk in Leila). Is there? What way?” she shoots back in response to my question, following that up with, “So you think I should be scared? Is that what you are asking me?” She finally settles into a long answer that suggests she interpreted “Did you feel any trepidation...?” as an accusation and/or an effort to start a fire – actually, social media Hindutvavaadis were already up in arms against Leila’s trailer when we met before the show’s June 14 premiere.
“The conscience has to be clear, no?” says Mehta. “Why would I want to do anything that would put me in that kind of jeopardy again? If I felt it even smelt of controversy, or put me into anything, I am not interested. Whether it does or not, who knows, I hope not, and you should hope not either because it kills discussion.” She becomes progressively less guarded as she adds, “Aren’t we a democracy in India? We are. The death of democracy is the death of dialogue. So I like the idea of dialogue. Some people might say it (Leila) is anti-Hindu, some might say it isn’t, but then have a dialogue. Band na karo (just don’t stop it).”
In the days since its premiere, Leila has drawn strong reactions on both sides of the ideological divide. Liberals have praised it for its courage and relevance, and some on social media are adopting the show’s “Jai Aryavarta” slogan to denote present-day newsbreaks so bizarre that they feel like something out of a dystopian future. Meanwhile, conservatives have trended the hashtags #Hinduphobia and #Hinduphobic on social media and circulated false claims that Leila reserves its criticism for Hindus alone, when in truth it is a denunciation of all orthodoxy and discrimination expressed most starkly through the portrayal of Aryavarta’s efforts to control women’s uteruses and marginalise “doosh”, the equivalent of India’s Dalits.
In a country where an overwhelming majority belongs to a single religion, chances are that stories will by and large be dominated by that community from among whom will emerge most heroes, victims and villains of fiction – thin-skinned conservatives avoid noting that if a Joshiji is the despot-in-chief of Aryavarta, its most prominent victim is a Shalini, and they coincidentally fail to mention the significant role played in the plot by the self-destructive, self-defeating bigotry of Shalini’s brother-in-law Naz. If anything, Naz is a reminder that majority and minority fundamentalism feed off each other, with each making the other the excuse for its existence.
At a creative level, Leila is not flawless. The first two episodes are impeccable but Episode 3 and the finale abruptly take on the air of a thriller by ending on needless cliffhangers. The leeway that Shalini and the labour camp inspector Bhanu (Siddharth) get in the last two episodes are not entirely convincing either. And slip-ups arise from what seems like the writers’ assumption that every viewer has read the novel. For instance, late in the season Bhanu uses the word “repeaters” out of the blue for the “pavitra paltan” (purity squad), the government-employed thugs who abducted Leila – “repeaters” is the book’s term for them.
If a second season is commissioned, these rough edges need to be smoothened out. Because the otherwise fascinating Orwellian, Atwoodian apocalypse of Akbar and Team Juvekar’s imagination is definitely worth returning to.
At a time when many mainstream entertainers are bowing and scraping before the government, Leila is a much-needed indictment of rabid nationalism and patriarchy, a condemnation of caste and class exploitation, a warning bell against ecological devastation and authoritarianism, and an envisioning of what could happen if, instead of equality, rebellion leads to an inversion of circumstances between the oppressors and the oppressed. Under this totalitarian regime, even dominance does not buy peace of mind. No one seems happy and completely secure in Aryavarta, not the Faiz Ahmed Faiz loving Mr Rao who is Joshiji’s No. 2, not Sapna the former maid, not Shalini the former mistress, and not Mrs Dixit her present employer with the terrified, constantly watchful saucer-like eyes.
Huma Qureshi is still in an introspective mood as we wind up our interview. Leila brought up questions that disturbed her greatly, she says. “I enjoy many privileges. I have had a comforting caring protective family, the privilege of education, a certain amount of wealth, now what if something were to happen and all this was taken away from me? Would I stop being me and become some animalistic version of me? Or would I be able to retain my humanity?”
A glance at this morning’s newspapers suggests that the future she worries about is closer than it seems.
This article was published on Firstpost on July 4, 2019:
Photographs courtesy: IMDB