‘Leila’ is a terrifying yet mesmerising vision of  future

‘Leila’ must be seen by every Indian as a timely warning. Emulating Nazi model of an emotion-less concentration camp Deepa Mehta’s futuristic world of totalitarianism is grim and utterly terrifying

‘Leila’ is a terrifying yet mesmerising vision of  future
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Subhash K Jha

In  the beginning there is the swimming pool. A splashy symbol of the upper crust’s affluence that’s rapidly making the poor, poorer.

Deepa Mehta’s disturbingly devastating dystopian drama begins with a happy family  Mother, Father, Child splashing in the pool. Within the first five minutes, the mood swerves away from joy and Shalini, the protagonist whose journey we follow from episode to enrapturing episode of acute pain and limited joy, finds herself alone in an clinical ashram that resembles the shelter home in Muzaffarpur where young girls  simply disappeared when they didn’t obey the elders’ salacious orders.

Except, that there is no sex in this world of sterile religiosity and puerile purification. Emulating the Nazi model of an emotion-less concentration camp Deepa Mehta’s futuristic world of emotionless totalitarianism is grim, joyless, and utterly terrifying. Those women in dull crimson saree moving like zombies in a place of perverse purification run by a slimy religious freak (Arif Zakaria, breathing  toxicity) reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The difference being, the world that Deepa Mehta’s emotionally vandalized characters inhabit is far more imminent and immediate and catastrophic. Wisely, Mehta’s writers Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kanwar, Patrick Graham have avoided any true-life political or religion references. But the colour saffron, though used sparingly, is ‘Om’nipresent, and nowhere more so than in the first episode.The cinematography is so austere and  colourless it feels like a painting that has bled itself to a blur.

One of the many assets of this gem of a picaresque series is that it makes radical shifts  of location in every episode, putting the protagonist Shalini in places where her feminine, wile and maternal instincts come into play with sinister consequences.  Huma Qureshi captures every heartbeat of the mother’s search for her missing daughter. Her face caught in tight close-ups displays enormous fortitude and hope in the midst of abject despair. This is Huma’s moment of resurrection.

In the second episode,  she befriends a female street urchin with whom she wades through heaps of garbage to escape a seemingly dangerous  government agent Bhanu(Siddharth) who, predictably, seems to harbor a soft corner for the woman he’s supposed to capture and probably kill. This is my least favourite episode with the little girl from the chawl over-doing the cutesie act and almost parodying the sympathy card.

Siddharth, habitually reliable (and quite effective in Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children) here fails to  register his character’s tonal ambivalence. But the other Deepa Mehta favourite Seema Biswas is excellent as a wheeler dealer with a sympathetic heart who helps the heroine whenever it suits her. I wish there was more of Biswas in the series. But then this is a world where everything is rationed.

This is a series that keeps us watching till the devastating finale.

I won’t say it’s done without emotional manipulation. There are points in the plot where the narrative cleverly  modulates  its tone to  hold our attention. But  we  don’t mind . Leila is an epic saga which conveys  a lot more than the fear  of the corroding spirit of radicalism that has seeped  into a  social fabric. It’s the story of  racial segregation and cultural nihilism told in  a deceptively calm tone with  a brutal force and  feral persuasiveness.

It’s amazing how well Huma Qureshi holds the plot together, going from grieving mother to cunning survivor in the midst of a religious, cultural and political chaos that we all would recognize hoping that the world Deepa has created for the future would somehow cancel itself out. Leila makes us think grimly about the future. Bleak and  scary as it may be, there is still hope in that smile that lights up Qureshi’s Shalini ‘s eyes  every time she thinks of her husband (Rahul Khanna) and child.

There is a moment when just before being captured she slaps a man who has betrayed her trust. The sound of that slap reverberates across Deepa Mehta’s world  smothered in terror and treachery. Leila is a savage ode to a lost world. It must be seen by every Indian as a timely warning. That glass of water that you are sipping right now could be your last.

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