‘All tyrants are afraid of losing power’: Huma Qureshi, Deepa Mehta on the pointed politics of Netflix’s Leila
“All tyrants are afraid of losing power,” said actor Huma Qureshi. In the upcoming Netflix Original Series, Leila - Huma’s web debut - that tyrant is a man named Joshi. Played by Sanjay Suri, Joshi is seen only in large portraits and billboards in the first three episodes of the dystopian drama. His face is on the walls of homes and government offices - smiling, serene and surrounded by saffron - having replaced Mahatma Gandhi’s. His followers fondly refer to him as Joshiji.
Joshi is the leader of a fictional nation known as Aryavarta, 30 years in the future. Through fear and false promises, he has convinced his subjects that Aryavarta is the greatest nation in the world. In reality, however, it is a country in which people are segregated on the basis of caste, religion and income.
Watch the Leila trailer here
Creative producer and director of the first two episodes of Leila, Deepa Mehta, compared Joshi to her old math teacher, ‘a horrible, authoritarian, insecure person who made everybody’s life in our class hell, because she had the power.’ Joshiji has a series of cartoons based on childhood, and followers who wear masks of his face.
The show, she said, ‘is about a person who has power and is completely insecure’. “(Benito) Mussolini was, (Adolf) Hitler was...” she trailed off.
“This story may be set in India,” Qureshi said, “but I think every country will find a certain synergy with it. Imagine someone in Israel-Palestine watching it.” The Canada-based Mehta agreed, citing the example of the ghettos in Toronto, where “if you’re a Muslim child you go to a certain school, if you’re Hindu you go to certain schools, or if you’re a black child you go to certain schools.”
“Let’s face it,” she said, “This is happening all over the world... In so-called liberal, democratic countries.”
Leila is based on the 2017 novel by Prayaag Akbar, ‘about a mother’s search for her child’ set against a dystopian backdrop. Adapted by Urmi Juvekar, the six-part series, due out on June 14 on the streaming service, takes several liberties in interpreting Akbar’s story. Joshi, for instance, as he is shown in the show is a mostly new creation, as is Aryavarta. The Purity Camps from the books have been transformed into Labour Camps. Qureshi plays Shalini - ‘an entitled, privileged woman,’ as Mehta described her - who is arrested for having married a Muslim man, converting to Islam, and parenting a ‘mixed’ child. And it is to one of these Labour Camps that she is subsequently sent.
“I think a lot of things resonated with me,” Qureshi said about the story. But she was particularly moved by the themes of segregation. “I have a lot of people in my family whose parents are from different parts of the country,” she said, “and I feel ‘what if their existence is one day banned?’ Those things were very personal for me.”
I asked her if she really believed that a future in which ‘mixed-blood children could be illegal’ was possible. “I certainly hope not,” she said. “with all my background and education and my faith and optimism in the human spirit, I don’t think so.” But, she said, “This is dystopia, right? Cinema allows us that liberty, that creative freedom to take an idea and make something out of it.” And Leila, she said, is nothing but a ‘cautionary tale’. “It’s supposed to tell you if you don’t check the path that you’re on, this is where it could eventually lead.”
Mehta, who is best known for her Elements Trilogy of films - 1947: Earth, Fire, and Water - acknowledged the comparisons to Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but said that Leila is ‘completely different’. “I never even thought about it,” she said, “because Handmaid’s Tale is shot in a very different way. It’s shot with a different camera, the lighting is completely different, the angles and the whole idea of (the fictional nation of) Gilead and the way it’s shot with a surplus of trees, and the way women are looked at - you can’t see them - it’s completely different.”
But all dystopian novels like the feminist Handmaid’s Tale and PD James’ Children of Men, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (which was also recently re-adapted for film), ‘have a seed of the present,’ Mehta said. “It has to be based in something,” Qureshi agreed. “So if you take 2019 as a reference point or a starting point, then you obviously exaggerate it to this dystopian, imaginary (world that has) gone to hell.”
Another Netflix series, 2018’s three-part horror Ghoul, also tackled themes of segregation and the rise of the right-wing, particularly in an Indian context. “Netflix has the courage,” Mehta said. “They did Sacred Games, they did Black Mirror, they’ve done Leila.”
Sacred Games, Netflix’s first original series in India, was involved in a tense legal battle over a certain line of dialogue that allegedly insulted former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. His son, Congress president Rahul Gandhi in a tweet swatted away the controversy and wrote that freedom ‘is a fundamental democratic right’ and said: “My father lived and died in the service of India. The views of a character on a fictional web series can never change that.” Netflix has since altered the subtitles in the scene in question.
“I knew exactly what I was getting into,” Qureshi said, asked if she had any apprehensions about the show, and if it could attract similar backlash. “We’re also aware of this,” she said, “when we’re playing characters like that and telling stories like that, to not try and offend anyone. But we’re obviously trying to start a dialogue.”
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