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Posted at: Jun 16, 2019, 2:29 AM; last updated: Jun 16, 2019, 2:29 AM (IST)

A world plunged in darkness

Leila, a new Netflix series starring Huma Qureshi, is set in a dystopian future where humanity hangs by a thread in a mother’s quest for her missing daughter

Saibal Chatterjee

The future is female: the legend emblazoned in black on the white T-shirt sported by Huma Qureshi, the lead actor of Leila,  a Netflix series spearheaded by Canadian-Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta,  isn’t a mere statement of intent. It is an act of defiance and hope  fully embedded in the internal creative logic of the show adapted from  the Prayaag Akbar novel of the same name. 

The veteran director, who has helmed two of the six episodes of Leila,  besides serving as the creative executive producer of the series, walks  into the room minutes later wearing the same T-shirt. There is instant  banter between the two women. “I do not like anybody stealing my  thunder,” Qureshi says in jest.

There is, of course, nothing in Leila,  which is set in a dystopian near future, which could be construed as  light-hearted. Its narrative is located in a world that is as dark as  hell, a nightmarish landscape in which humanity is on its last legs.  Adapted for the screen by Mumbai screenwriter Urmi Juvekar (Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Shanghai),the  series hinges on the female gaze even as its focus is squarely on  widespread oppression unleashed on the population in the form of secured  gated communities, labour camps, re-education centres for errant women  and severe water rationing. 

Authored by a man, the story sees the  world through the eyes of a woman separated from her daughter in a  highly polarised environment in which people are segregated in  accordance with their class, caste and religion. With three female  professionals — Mehta, Qureshi and Juvekar — turning the disturbing tale  into a gripping web-series, Leila passes the Bechdel test with a  lot to spare. But that is only one part of its appeal: the crafting  (marked notably by superb cinematography and crisp editing), the acting  and the immersive production design all contribute to making this a  phenomenally riveting and consistently thought-provoking piece of  storytelling.

“So much has happened around her, but it is important  that the central character does not lose her humanity,” Qureshi says  about the defining quality of the protagonist Shalini, a Hindu woman who  has her Muslim husband bludgeoned to death and her infant daughter  taken away from her. “You see the grimness of this world through her  eyes, so if she loses grip over herself, will there be any hope left?”

Leila  tells a story about deep societal divides that have torn the land apart  in the late 2040s, a period in which a rising leader lords over a flock  that swears by “progress, prosperity and purity”. The emphasis is on  the last-mentioned goal. The pursuit of homogeneity has driven a huge  wedge between the haves and the have-nots, and between people with  pristine genes and those of mixed blood.

  “Shalini’s quest for Leila  (it plays out over a period of 16 years) is a metaphor for the woman  looking for herself and maintaining her dignity,” explains Qureshi.  Besides Mehta, Shanker Raman (Gurgaon) and Pawan Kumar (Lucia) have directed two episodes each of Leila.

How was it playing a single character under three different directors?  “It was a difficult process,” replies Qureshi. “It isn’t easy  reimagining a character each time the director changes. So, what was  important for me that with all three directors — all of them were very  nice and competent — was to ensure the growth of the character without  going too far away from where you started. Maintaining consistency was a  challenge.”

Mehta, who describes Leila as a small and  accessible book, says: “What attracted me to it is the challenge of  Shalini to keep her humanity because she represents humanity, not just  Indian, but all humanity. This story is not about religion but about the  disintegration of humanity.”

Reacting to criticism from certain quarters that Leila  fans Hinduphobia, Mehta retorts: “Have these people seen the series?  You’ve said it, it is a phobia. A phobia is never based on reality. I am  in any case sceptical of all phobias.” 

  Mehta was brought on board as a director on hire to make the pilot and the second episode of Leila.  Also being made the creative executive producer “made it worth the  while”, she says. “Just to be able to direct would not have been  satisfying enough. I needed to set the tone of the whole series. I also  insisted on choosing the actors  — that would give me the freedom to  work with the actors I wanted.”

Besides Huma Qureshi, the cast of Leila  includes Seema Biswas, Rahul Khanna, Siddharth, Arif Zakaria, Sanjay  Suri, Adarsh Gaurav and Neha Mahajan. It began streaming on Netflix on  June 14.

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