THE six-episode Netflix series Leila, set in a dystopian India in the year 2047 (that’s just 28 years from now), could be the reality considering the world’s current state.
Based on the 2017 novel by Prayaag Akbar, it tells of a formation of a new state, Aryavarta, where citizens are segregated according to religion, class and caste.
The leaders and enforcers of this oppressive regiment are men who egotistically assume their thinking is the ideal way of life for everyone. And along the way, they manipulate the system for their own benefit.
The series also roots itself to what’s happening to our world today by showcasing how pollution and overpopulation have turned necessities like clean water and clean air as luxury items.
Hence, in Leila, only the wealthy have easy access to these commodities and decent life, whereas the poor are denied these basic human rights while pushed to live in unsanitary conditions.
In the middle of these happenings is a mother desperate to find her child.
Despite that promising premise, Leila does not take off … fizzling out just two episodes in. Worse, the series ends on a cliffhanger with no resolution. As of press time, there is no news of a second season.
We follow the events of this story through Shalini, a woman whose husband is of different faith. Since she’s born into privilege, she’s protected by her class so she and her family live in a bubble even as the country is going to the dogs. They have a swimming pool!
But then, one day, her home is invaded by the so-called enforcers, who are no more than thugs given power, and her whole life falls apart. She is taken away from her husband and daughter, and sent to a women’s welfare centre on the crimes that she married outside of her community.
And now Shalini only wants to be reunited with her daughter no matter the cost. In other words, she has to go against the system.
Maybe it’s the script (or lack of it), maybe it’s the actress (she’s bland) or maybe it’s the direction (the plot skips over important moments), but the audience is never given a chance to get into Shalini’s inner thoughts properly and this is the main reason why Leila fails.
From the time we see her taken forcefully from her home to when we see her again, two years have passed, and Shalini has become a submissive person at the centre.
Her only form of rebellion is that she imagines her husband from time to time, encouraging her to stay strong so she can be reunited with their daughter one day.
She is so accepting of her fate that she advises a newcomer to the centre to just to abide. OK, she may have been beaten to submission but at no point is the audience asked to share her grief or loss as that whole journey is never shown. So it’s not our fault that we don’t care what happens to this woman from start to finish.
It doesn’t help that actress Huma Qureshi doesn’t successfully convey Shalini’s emotional turmoil other than to show a pair of dead eyes.
Thankfully some of the supporting characters fare better. Guru Ma, the man running the welfare centre, makes the audience uncomfortable from the first meeting. Played with chilling effect by Arif Zakaria, Guru Ma delivers his ridiculous orders to the women in a quiet yet threatening manner.
There is also a young character named Roop, who livens up Episode Two and conveys convincingly both the anger she feels towards the new regime as well as the realisation of her own hopeless situation.
There are images especially in Episode Two when Shalini and Roop are making their way through the homes of poor people and outcast that leave an impression with the audience.
Watching the show, it’s hard to distinguish what’s real and what’s CGI as most of the locations may very well be actual places – like the landfill where plastic and trash are higher than a hill, or the dilapidated buildings where the poor live.
As our attention keeps drifting away from Shalini and onto needless thoughts like how are the trees and grass so green despite the lack of water or how are everyone’s clothes so clean when the water is dirty, the core tale of a mother trying to find her daughter is not our main concern.
In the end, there is nothing profound about Leila. It’s just another dystopian tale and not a very good one at that.