Deepa Mehta’s series for Netflix, Leila, is at once a dystopian representation and also about contemporary India.
What makes it terrifying is not its special effects or its conceptual originality but its utter familiarity. The filmmakers have based their society of 2040 on social divisions engendered by India’s caste politics and its environmental breakdown.
However, no one who has watched the series can doubt what Mehta is critiquing: the caste system, religious discrimination, historical revisionism, environmental degradation and the ideological power of Hindutva.
It is often surprising how close to the present the series is. While Mehta has not chosen new or surprising aspects of dystopia, it is in the cinematography and locations that we find those effects which make the series bone-chillingly close to our experience of everyday, contemporary India.
Its very banality makes the series frightening.
The “futuristic” parts of the series seem taken out of today’s headlines.
For example, the proscription of inter-faith and inter-caste marriage seems like something out of the Sakshi Mishra case. The water scarcity of Aryavarta is scarily reminiscent of what is happening in Chennai right now. The complacency of Rao as he governs a police state while listening to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, is also very familiar.
This now-it’s-real, now-its-not aspect allows us to see the potential of what is happening in India. The adaptation has many weaknesses, not just limited to the amorphous depiction of the state through violence, yet it strikes pretty close to the bone.
The series places itself squarely in the tradition of classic dystopian narratives that have taken communism, totalitarianism, technological surveillance and ideological repetition as techniques of mass control.
In this, both Prayag Akbar and Deepa Mehta are following a well-established tradition in which writers and filmmakers have used the genre of utopia and dystopia to critique the present.
The earliest example is that of Thomas More’s Utopia, written in the 16th century. The genre, naturally, gets its name from More’s novel. Utopia literally means ‘no place’.
In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift built on this tradition in Gulliver’s Travels, to satirise England’s elite.
However, it was the 20th century that was dystopian fiction’s golden age. Some famous examples are George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and, of course Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the last of which was made for Hulu.
In the West, authors often used existing trends like technology or genetic science and projected them into the future to highlight their dangers. In communist countries, authors often depicted the totalitarian present, bizarre as it was.
Both Mikhail Bulgakov and Yevgeny Zamaitin were able to depict the present through the lens of “making strange” by overlaying their narrative with another literary form like myth or folktale or heroic narratives, in order to make them function at two levels: realistically and as extended metaphor. A more recent example, Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds, uses elements of dystopia to create his imagined landscape of disappeared people, which could stand for Balochistan, Kashmir or any war-torn, forgotten space.
Leila bases its dystopian elements on two main assumptions: India is out of water, and a totalitarian Hindu state that wants to “cleanse” India’s diversity by enforcing regressive gender roles (or so it seems). This state has set up a surveillance system through barcoding humans and forcing them to live segregated lives. Like Huxley’s Brave New World, children are indoctrinated at a young age, human beings are classified into hierarchical levels, and the elite still enjoy clean air and water. As in 1984, crossing the state results in torture and slavery, and all human relationships are subservient to the state as the supreme father.
The question of ‘where’
The series’s innovation lies in where it is filmed. Like in Utopia and Red Birds, it is everywhere and nowhere. Most of it is recognisably in Delhi, which gives it a particular immediacy.
Specifically, the most iconic image is that of the Ghazipur landfill, the “Everest” or rubbish, upon which much of the action takes place. It symbolises not the just the environmental horror but also the lives of the “Doosh” (a play of words on “dooshit“or polluted) who live across it and on it.
It also forms a literal wall between the haves and have-nots. We don’t need dystopia to see this reality for ourselves each time we travel from Delhi to Haryana. Similar trash mountains are rising in other parts of the country as well. The rest of the action takes place in the equally dead and depressing high-rise flats around the outskirts of NCR and the equally characterless malls that can be found in Noida, Gurgaon and Ghaziabad.
However, the basis of the social structure of Aryavarta is caste and class segregation. For this the filmmakers have left Delhi and used the gated housing societies of Ahmedabad and Vadodra in Gujarat. Housing societies in these cities are policed to an extraordinary extent by an unelected board that keeps out residents who don’t belong to a particular caste or religion.
Unwanted existing residents are cajoled, bribed, and threatened to move. Banias, Patidars, Brahmins, Hindus, Muslims: each group has its own housing society where outsiders are not welcome. This self-policing tendency, which verges on discrimination, has been exacerbated after the 2002 pogrom. In choosing this as a blueprint for her housing and social structure, Mehta has shown how we live spatially determines how we are as a nation.
Ultimately what is frightening about the series is that it almost feels like a documentary.
Shailja Sharma is professor of international studies and director of refugee and forced migration studies at DePaul University.