Netflix's 'Leila' Is a Dystopian Drama About Disappearances and Regret

The series, however, lacks the complexity of its source material.

In Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel, Leila (2017), the setting – “a digitised city, some time in the near future” – comes alive with disconcerting, geometric precision. It comprises giant quadrangular sectors – self-sustaining homogenous havens of sub-castes and religions – cordoned off by 60-feet sector walls, guarded by Repeaters, who only allow outsiders after a rigorous ID check. The city is also segregated vertically: here, “flyroads” transport privileged civilians; clean air is bottled and sold; and streams of trash, discarded by the rich, flow down the sector walls.

All of this is set to the salutations and diktats of “purity for all” – a new state, called the Council, which ‘protects’ and treats its children like an overbearing Indian father: inter-breeding is disapproved, and dissent is punished. In the world of such organised chaos, Shalini has lost her daughter and, quite possibly, her mind. Her name is “Leila” – the child of a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, she can be who you want her to be: Leela (Hindu) or Laila (Muslim). Maybe she’s both or none – a sea lost among islands.

The novel has been recently adapted into a Netflix series, of the same name, co-directed by Deepa Mehta, Shankar Ramen and Pawan Kumar. Movies and literary journalism are bound by one pressing limitation: they don’t ordinarily grant you access to a person’s mind. Leila, narrated through a third person’s limited point of view, collapses the distance between Shalini’s inner and outer worlds, a privilege not afforded to the makers of the web series. So there are changes to the original text – structural, ornamental, thematic – as you’d expect from any serious adaptation.

Unlike the novel, the series roots the story temporally: the year is 2049, the country Aryavarta. In the novel, the mother and daughter have been separated for 16 years, in the web series, for two years. If the novel opens with a hook – a wandering mother thinking about, and looking for, her daughter – then the series opens with an inciting incident: a Repeater breaking into her house, murdering the husband (Rahul Khanna), and kidnapping Leila, a scene that comes around the halfway mark in the book. If the novel fancies itself as haleem – a delicious slow-burn – then the series wants to be cup noodles: too eager, too impatient, to be consumed.   

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Which, it must be said, isn’t automatically a bad thing. This is simply a matter of aesthetics and comfort zone. But if you are deviating from the original text (which this series does considerably – there are new characters, subplots, themes), then you should, at the very least, respect its mechanics.

The novel interrogates the nuances of its world in chilling, penetrating details – developing almost a unique language of terror – while the series, evident from its opening, is more content with a bird’s-eye view.

After the first sequence, the series cuts to an Aryavarta purity camp two years later. It’s a place for society’s outcasts who are subjected to humiliating regimes. This world has a rule and a mind of its own, but the makers see it through a tired lens. The camp has threatening guards (two of them are transgender women); the inmates are called “randi” and there is a certain loudness and melodrama to this entire portion, which is on-the-nose theatrical and, more disappointingly, generic.

Barring a few scenes – where Shalini (Huma Qureshi) rolls on the ground, over morsels of food, chanting, “Jai Aryavarta” or another inmate getting married to a dog for violating Aryavarta’s rules or a pyramid materialising out of thin air for purity test – the rest of the segment lacks penetrating specifics crucial to such a story.

World building is crucial to any dystopian fiction. Leila, the series, tells us ‘what’ Aryavarta is – a heavily militarised state obsessed with the ideas of purity – but doesn’t adequately show ‘how’. Instead of closely examining this world, from the ground up, the series segues into a Tom-and-Jerry chase between Shalini and Bhanu (Siddharth), an officer at the Labour Camp, where she’s now transferred for disobeying the purity test. This longish sequence – again, seen countless times in many movies – doesn’t do enough to reveal Aryavarta or Shalini’s character.

It does talk about “doosh” – a set of people living in abject grime and poverty, discarded by the state, who have begun rebelling – but doesn’t dive deep into the mechanics of Aryavarta itself. Then there’s a scene where Shalini, still on the run, goes to her in-laws’ house. This simply wouldn’t have been possible in a country regimented by strict sectorial boundaries and Repeaters’ vigil, hawk-like presence. The series, thus, violates some crucial rules of the novel in lieu of easy dramatic mileage.

Then there are dialogues that sway between contrived and icky. Sample some of them: “Shudhi pariksha kyun? Kyunki pariksha humein shudh karti hai” (Why is there a purification exam? Because the exam purifies us); “I’m you, and you’re me”; “we’d be there together today if we hadn’t done this to us” – the last two courtesy Khanna (a handsome, charming man, earnest with a capital-E), in a short role, who really struggles to act. Worse, he’s cast as a ghost here – a manifestation of Shalini’s delusion – whose abrupt lines keep interrupting the rhythm of the story.

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None of the other functional dialogues are even remotely memorable. This consistently indifferent, at times shoddy, writing comes as a surprise, because the series employs three writers of considerable repute: Urmi Juvekar (screenwriter of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), Shanghai (2012)), Suhani Kanwar (additional screenplay writer of Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017)) and Patrick Graham (who wrote and directed a powerful dystopian series for Netflix, Ghoul (2018), last year).

One of the more frustrating aspects of living in a dystopia must be that you’ve more questions than answers, your agency is limited and even the most mundane rights have to be relentlessly pursued and won. But here, the story is often propelled by convenient writing, giving Shalini suitable allies, at different points in her search, softening the edges of a totalitarian regime. When she gets in trouble, she drops something – either tea or a fishbowl – to distract her tormentors, securing vital information.

The series’ finale, in fact, has some eye-rolling plot turns (which can’t be discussed here for the fear of spoilers), so out of sync with the pulse of the story that you feel that the writers just gave up. Contrast this, again, with the book where we, with Shalini at all times, discover crucial information at different points. Nothing is given to her on a platter – you can sense her frustration, smell her sweat – which also illuminates the odds she’s up against.

Qureshi, a promising actor, also the centrepiece of the series, digs her claws deep into the role of a grieving, resilient mother. The character experiences psychological disintegration and fading physicality – she gets dark and frail as the series progresses. That said, though, her performance would have been richer if the writing had tested her enough, given her more varying shades.

The rest of the cast, Siddharth, Arif Zakaria, Seema Biswas, consists of accomplished actors, too, but their performances – surface level and routine – never elevate the story. Even the production design (by Abhijit Gaonkar and Sonam Singh) is, at best, superficial. We do get a few sci-fi clichés – futuristic computers and phones – but besides that, the series’ world never really informs the story.

But the most disappointing bit about the series is that it’s not even half as complex, or challenging, as its source material. There, Akbar – in terse devastating lines – cast light on the hypocrisies of liberals: that they are not as empathetic, as compassionate, as they think they are; that their ‘progressive’ worldview hides many sordid truths. There was also enough ambivalence about Shalini and her quest for Leila: Is her daughter even alive? Is her ‘hunch’ correct – or just an extension of her madness?

That novel, like most effective pieces of fiction, allowed you to reach your own conclusions – your answer revealing less about the story, more about yourself. But the series – like the foreboding sector walls – closes its gates on us firmly and quickly. It’s ironic that in an adaptation about disappearances and regret, the most significant meeting, between Leila (2017) and Leila (2019), turned out to be of little value – like disgruntled siamese twins crying out for individual freedoms.