In the beginning there is the swimming pool. A splashy symbol of the uppercrust’s affluence that’s rapidly making the poor, poorer.
Deepa Mehta’s disturbingly devastating dystopian drama begins with a happy family – mother, father and 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 sarees moving around zombie-like in a place of perverse purification run by a slimy religious freak (Ariz Zakaria, breathing toxicity) reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
The difference being, the world that Deepa Mehta’s emotionally vandalised characters inhabit is far more imminent and immediate and catastrophic. Wisely, Mehta’s writers Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kanwar and Patrick Graham have avoided any true-life political or religion references. But the colour saffron, though used sparingly, is omnipresent 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 harbour 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’s 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 it’s 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 recognise 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.