By Liz Singh
“Leila” is the horror content that we need in 2019 whether we know it or not.
Deepa Mehta’s first foray into television isn’t listed as “Horror” on Netflix. The show is tagged “TV shows based on books”, “Social Issue TV”, and “Political TV shows” but if you identify as something other than a conservative, if the nightly news keeps you awake with existential angst, then “Leila” is the definition of “Horror”. For those of us who feel that our society is on the edge of a steep precipice, this is a show about what would happen if we were given just the tiniest nudge.
The nudge in “Leila” is massive and widespread water shortages in one of the hottest, most populated parts of the world – South East Asia. “Leila” follows the story of Shalini (Huma Qureshi) whose daughter has been stolen by the fictional religious autocratic state of Aryavarta after Shalini herself was imprisoned and her husband murdered. Through Shalini’s eyes, we explore this dystopian barely distant future where clean water and air are commodities reserved for the ultra-wealthy and different religious groups are strictly segregated. As in our world, some benefit mightily from this rigid system but the majority suffer.
The creators are careful to emphasize that the show is not specifically about India or Hinduism and while certainly there are references to both of those, the themes are universal. All around the world, conservative religious groups seem to be on the rise along with sea levels. Food and water are running out. Soon after Leila’s release, there were reports of police escorting water tankers in India so that they are not overtaken by the desperately thirsty. To a Western audience, those concerns may seem distant and difficult to relate to but it would behoove them to try. Part of “Leila”’s argument is that our fate – our moral fate, if not our mortal fate – is tied to our ability to recognize the suffering of others and our common humanity.
“Like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Leila” uses every artistic tool at its disposal to make its point…This is less of a television show than a call to action.”
Some critics have compared “Leila” to “The Handmaid’s Tale”. It’s true that both shows dramatize the ways in which the reproductive rights of women and girls come under fire in times of war and scarcity. That said, the scarcity of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is rarely made explicit, whereas “Leila” is painfully specific – humanity is running out of the water and their thirst is driving them to desperate ends. In Aryavarta, the subjugation of women is a means to an end and not an end in and of itself. It is only one means of control and division in a world where religion and class matter at least as much to one’s survival.
Like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Leila” uses every artistic tool at its disposal to make its point. The music and cinematography are beautiful and Qureshi and Siddarth (as her sometimes nemesis, sometimes love interest) give remarkable performances but Leila’s politics speak louder than its art. This is less of a television show than a call to action.