A glimpse into the future

A still from Leila used for representational purposes only

A still from Leila used for representational purposes only

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.

[“source=asianage”]