by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

In the wake of the recent lockdown in Kashmir, the region long contested between India, Pakistan and its own people, in which communication has been drastically halted and public gatherings banned, Indian politics has found its way into international headlines. But the situation in Kashmir is just one aspect of a much broader, increasingly fascist regime run by a Hindu-supremacist, far-right government. Over the past five years under this regime, Muslims have been lynched by government-affiliated mobs for alleged beef consumption; persecution – and murder – of Dalits (members of the lowest castes) through similar means has soared; journalists have been assassinated for trying to tell the truth. This is why Deepa Mehta’s Netflix drama series Leila provides a timely and disturbing picture of a future India, situated only decades from now in 2047. Unlike many dystopian dramas, Leila is not set in a post-apocalyptic or reorganised world which encodes real socio-political dynamics within imaginary ones. Instead, it neatly locates contemporary Indian landmarks and structural oppressions within the complex fabric of a dystopian future state: Aryavarta, a set of strictly segregated communities governed by fully-fledged totalitarianism.    

Based on Prayaag Akbar’s eponymous 2017 novel, and reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, Leila is the story of the privileged Shalini (Huma Qureshi), and her search for her missing infant daughter, the titular Leila. Their separation occurs when Shalini is kidnapped and jailed for owning a swimming pool when water is a scarce and contested luxury (which, it emerges, is particularly inaccessible for the stigmatised ‘Doosh’ people, alluding to the enduring ostracization of Dalits). The viewer soon learns that Shalini’s husband is Muslim and Leila, a ‘mixed-blood’ child, has been taken away by the state, echoing the historical, deeply segregated societies in which mixed-race children have been systematically ‘assimilated’ (such as twentieth-century Australia). However, the application of this scenario to children of mixed-faith couples grounds the storyline within a specifically Indian context: the taboo of, and large-scale social opposition to, Hindu-Muslim marriages on the grounds of ‘Love Jihad’. This has been broadly legitimised by the current government’s rampant Islamophobia, and has often culminated in killings of young Muslim men – as captured by the chilling murder of Shalini’s husband in the opening scene, even as she is arrested. 

Transgressing the boundaries of identity-based segregation – along the lines of both new and existing identities – constitutes much of the women’s ‘impure’ activity. 

Other moments also demonstrate Aryavarta’s enduring Islamophobia and Hindu supremacy. The destruction of the world-famous Muslim monument, the Taj Mahal, is shown on television in a flashback; Hindu names and aesthetics are associated with state loyalty and purity throughout, the reverse applied to Muslim names. When working as a servant in a wealthy household, Shalini’s employer asks if she has ever eaten non-vegetarian food, invoking India’s current widespread beef bans targeting Muslims which have led to intimidation, violence and murder. This employer embodies a version, both outdated and fascist, of the ideal married woman, spending her time indoctrinating her toddler with reverence for Aryavarta’s leader, Mr Joshi, whilst her husband focuses on his career.   

Indeed, women’s supposed duty under totalitarianism is a major theme of the series. The prison Shalini is initially taken to is, in fact, a ‘purity camp’ (sinisterly named the ‘Women’s Welfare Centre’).  Inmates are held here – and regularly drugged – until they are chosen to take a ‘purity test’, which decides whether they will be released or permanently enslaved. The fights and alliances between the women, their unflattering uniforms and the contempt with which they are treated by prison staff are all reminiscent of Orange is the New Black, but with the ominous, constant presence of the state looming overhead. The slogan ‘Heil Aryavarta’, a motif throughout the series, is enforced upon the women along with supposedly purifying chants professing their devotion to their state. The gendered juxtaposition of ‘purity’ ensuring women’s place within society, with the brutal ostracization of those deemed ‘impure’ for resisting the confiscation of their ‘mixed-blood’ children, is a blatant reference to eugenics. The markers of this impurity are both recognisable and invented: when Shalini asks a fellow prisoner if she is there because her husband is Muslim, the woman explains, ‘He’s a category 2, I’m a category 5’. Transgressing the boundaries of identity-based segregation – along the lines of both new and existing identities – constitutes much of the women’s ‘impure’ activity. 

But at its core is a more urgent warning on the dangers of Hindu nationalism and communal segregation which, if heeded by viewers familiar with India’s current government, has the potential to inspire widespread resistance.

Structurally, the series is underscored with cinematic symbolism: the opening scene depicts Shalini, her husband and daughter at their swimming pool. The lapping of the deep blue water – along with the pealing sounds of their lively exchanges – suggest a short-lived happiness within an idyllic yet artificial vacuum, as confirmed by the sudden intrusion of fascist thugs, and the subsequent tragic fragmentation of the family. From this point onwards, the light is shadowy and understated as the camera grittily captures the dirt roads and red-brick buildings of North India, laden with disturbing futuristic technology and rules facilitating state repression. Despite its undeniably upper-middle class protagonist, Leila gives a voice to strata of Indian society less often seen on the screen – the lower classes, castes and political dissenters. These interactions are tinged with contemporary context: in one scene, a ‘Doosh’ child Shalini has befriended refers to the government as ‘capitalist crooks’, underlining the endurance of contemporary capitalist structures. Rebellion against the regime becomes increasingly central to the plot, locating Shalini’s quest within a wider resistance movement.   

Leila is not easy viewing – there are many harrowing scenes, from the women’s deeply degrading and humiliating experiences in the purity camp to Shalini’s discoveries during her search, which are rendered poignant by Qureshi’s subtly sensitive acting. These scenes are interlaced with and punctuated by tropes of dystopian drama – from sinister figures such as the ‘Guru’ running the purity camp to bus announcements forbidding passengers to ‘laugh or talk loudly’ – which sometimes give Leila a cliché and predictable feeling. But at its core is a more urgent warning on the dangers of Hindu nationalism and communal segregation which, if heeded by viewers familiar with India’s current government, has the potential to inspire widespread resistance.

Featured image: Netflix

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