Home / Lounge / Features /  Opinion: A bland maid’s tale: ‘Leila’

During the final episode of Netflix’s new series Leila, a character utters the words “Jeete raho", which are then curiously interpreted by the subtitles as “Live long and prosper". The literal meaning of the words may not be too far off, but this instinct to unsubtly—and unmistakably—invoke Mr Spock from Star Trek at the climax of a dour drama is questionable. This is symptomatic of the show itself, a tale of a segregated, polluted future that desperately wants to be considered cleverer than it is. Instead, what we are given is a beginner’s guide to dystopia.

Based on the 2017 novel by Prayaag Akbar, the Leila series is an odd beast. The atmospherics are grim, the storytelling is relentlessly dark, the cinematography is brilliant…and yet the world view is extremely limited, the narrative strives too hard to work as a conventional thriller, and the political overtones are too overt, too spelt out to be effective. I must admit to not yet having read Akbar’s acclaimed novel, but this adaptation is severely clunky, one that hopes mention of radicalism is radical enough. Written by Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kanwar and Patrick Graham, the show focuses inexpertly on thrills but would have done better to explore dread.

The year is 2049. India is run by the authoritarian leadership of Aryavarta, whose leader Joshi is treated as the new father of the nation: This is emphasized by a scene where a shopkeeper, fearing the authorities, flips over a Mahatma Gandhi picture on his wall to display a Joshi picture. The Aryavarta administration divides Hindus on the basis of caste, while rejecting those belonging to other religions. Despite much talk of purity, there is little clean air or water, Muslims have been entirely ghettoized, and children of mixed marriages are some of the biggest casualties.

Shalini Rizwan Chowdhury, an affluent woman who fills her swimming pool with bootlegged water, is assaulted one day by the Repeaters, a squad of Aryavarta enforcers who leave her Muslim husband for dead and take Shalini to a camp to test her purity. She is, therefore, separated from her daughter, Leila, and the series is about Shalini’s all-consuming search for her.

Leading lady Huma Qureshi gamely gives it a go as the frantically hunting heroine. Her Shalini is both devastated and driven, and this is a performance born out of commitment, a grimy display forsaking all vanity— especially considering the claustrophobically tight close-ups she deals with—but the series doesn’t properly define either her personality or her challenges. She goes from treating a maid dismissively to becoming a rudely treated maid, and is on the run throughout this six-episode series, but Shalini is aided by a lazy narrative where everything, coincidentally or conveniently, falls into place and takes her closer to her target.

That doesn’t mean Deepa Mehta doesn’t put her through the wringer. Mehta, who wrote and directed the first two episodes, may be the kind of film-maker who needs to be kept away from books—I remain traumatized by her 2012 adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Here, she turns up the torture and debasement for Shalini and her fellow inmates, making them marry dogs, polish boots and roll around on unfinished food—all for shock value. It is gratuitously wretched, but I must concede the series has some grip in these early portions; the latter episodes are all over the place.

Unlike most dystopias, the world of Leila is not entirely unthinkable—increasingly segregated, with a contempt for the arts, and the minorities—which may itself be a statement. Here we live in the middle of a dystopia, and that I can believe. What the narrative then needs to explore is the possible tipping point that led us to this nightmare: why it happened, and what unforeseen problems arise from such authoritarianism. Ideally, it should lead us to introspect and imagine where we can go from here. Instead, the show appears content with cutesy political potshots: Children in Joshi’s reign are made to watch bad animation cartoons about “Junior Joshi".

Another problem is the obvious influence of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Hulu adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel is one of the most thrilling shows on TV (seasons 1 and 2 are streaming in India on Sony Liv) and Leila seems eager to borrow elements: Here too, a once wealthy woman finds herself working as a nanny in the house of a high-ranking official. Both shows share thematic elements and feature women clad in crimson, a visual choice that damns the newer show by comparison.

Cinematographer Johan Heurlin Aidt, who also shot the Netflix series Delhi Crime, impressively conjures up atmosphere and mood, often camouflaging the ordinary sets and world-building through shadowy composition. This finesse, along with fine performances—Akash Khurana, Vidhi Chitalia and Siddharth are all solid—make Leila appear smarter than it is.

“Do you even have a plan?" a character asks Shalini at one point. There are intriguing ideas here—about revolutions, about class, about dignity versus labour—but they barely scratch the surface. By the end of the series, Leila chooses a cliffhanger over clarity. This show has little to say, and the makers had a plan all along. It’s called evasion.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @rajasen

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