When Deepa Mehta peered into the camera lens and yelled action for the first time on the sets of Leila, a six-part Netflix India series that makes its debut June 14, there was an added frisson to the process. It had been almost 20 years since her attempt to shoot Water, the final instalment of her Elements trilogy, in India.
At first starring Indian art-house masters Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, along with Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, the production ran into problems during its shoot in Varanasi in February, 2000. The sets by the banks of the Ganges River were destroyed by Hindu right-wing protesters, who had called her previous work Fire (1996) immoral and were operating on false rumours that the script for Water had insulting references to Hinduism. Mehta had to pack up, and eventually shot the film in Sri Lanka in 2003, with a new cast of Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray and John Abraham.
When the shoot for Leila in New Delhi and surrounding areas started this past November, Mehta was both nervous and excited. She was grateful that working on a Netflix series didn’t require her to get “approval or disapproval or whatever” from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
“Because I have been nervous about that. I‘ve had a very difficult history with India and filming there,” she says, her face growing pensive for a moment. Sitting in Canteen, the casual eatery on the ground floor of the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Mehta cradles a cup of English breakfast tea in her hands. As always, she’s a striking sight: her hair a stream of silver, two gold studs glinting in her nose, eyes lined with kohl. She’s accessorized a sailor-striped shirt and jeans ensemble with a jaunty scarf and a bright red tote bag. “But it was exciting because it’s home in many ways. It can’t stop being home. I am a very proud Indo-Canadian. Even though Indians aren’t very proud of me, I am very proud of that.”
Besides, there was the intrigue of shooting a series set against an dystopian Indian backdrop.
Leila is based on a 2017 novel by Indian journalist Prayaag Akbar. Set in a fictional Indian city in the near future, it tells the story of Shalini and her search for her missing daughter. Shalini, a Hindu, has been leading a comfortable life with her husband Riz, a Muslim, and their daughter, Leila, in a part of the city called East End. While the rest of the city has segregated itself by building walled sectors on the basis of religious, ethnic or caste differences, East End remains one of the bastions where such purity rules didn’t matter. However, water shortage brings a band of enforcers called the Repeaters to Shalini’s home, killing Riz and taking away her three-year-old daughter.
The Netflix adaptation stays true to the main story, adding layers of details. The fictional city is called Aryavatra, grimy and grey, suffocating with a sense of gloom. The women's centre that Shalini is forced to stay at and prove her purity is overseen by two transgender guards, spewing curse words. The establishment is run by a man they refer to as Guru Ma. At first trying to fit in, Shalini is plotting her escape by the end of the first episode.
The book is inspired by Akbar’s personal and professional experiences. The son of a Muslim father and Christian mother, Akbar has given interviews about growing up “de-racinated” in New Delhi enclaves before moving to Mumbai, where apartment buildings renting out units based on dietary or religious strictures have regularly made headlines. His work as a reporter often involved covering the rise of Hindu nationalism, as well as issues of social justice. Although some Indian reviewers have compared Leila to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Akbar has spoken about his affinity to South African author J. M. Coetzee. During a trip to India in 2017, Mehta caught Akbar’s interview with Newslaundry, an Indian online media critique and current-affairs portal co-founded by Indian media veteran Madhu Trehan – who happens to be a friend of Mehta’s.
“Madhu told me you have to read the book. So I read the book, and I fell in love with, and forgot about it, and moved on doing other stuff,” Mehta said. In fact, she’d started working on her next film project based on Funny Boy, Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai’s critically acclaimed debut novel, when she got a call from Netflix asking if she would direct a limited series based on Leila. Impressed by the pitch document written by Urmi Juvekar, who was also the showrunner, Mehta took on the project, ensuring she had control as creative executive producer – setting the tone for the series, and especially in choosing the actors.
“The series belongs to Huma Qureshi,” says Mehta, adding that she first saw Qureshi in her debut performance in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, a two-part gangster film set in the badlands of Indian coal mines, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. “It was a commitment because actors do a film that’s an hour-and-a-half or two hours long, and they go home. This was a six-part one-hour series, and continuous.
“I said, ‘Huma, no makeup.’ And there was none. She gave up everything that comes with being a Bollywood star, and she became Shalini.”
Shalini’s journey drives the series, Mehta adds. Her search for her daughter in a dystopian world where mixed marriages are frowned upon is just the surface of a complex issue. Leila – the novel and its Netflix adaptation – is set against a particular Indian landscape, wherein the political party BJP won the recent Indian elections with a massive majority on the basis of its Hindu nationalist agenda, and vigilante violence against Muslims is a chilling reality. However, it reflects the rise of right-wing rhetoric across the globe seen in the current debate on abortion rights going on in the United States or Andrew Scheer’s flirtation with the far-right movement.
“Whether it happens in America, or it happens here in Canada, or it happens in Italy where people are saying, ‘We don’t want immigrants.’ What is that fear? The fear of the other. It’s the fear of what is different,” she says. And the imaginary world of all dystopian novels, and their film adaptations, are based on our worst fears. “Whether it’s Blade Runner, for example, or it’s Brazil. Or it’s 1984. Or, for me, one of the most amazing films is Children of Men because in a way it’s quite similar [to Leila]".
For Mehta, the critical point of Leila and its relevance in the world is the decisions Shalini makes to lead a life of dignity. “We have a choice now wherever we live. Are we going to be humanitarian or are we not? … We have to make a choice,” she says. “Dignity for women, for mothers. For space, for honesty. Can we do it? That’s her lesson.”
As for her favourite story of shooting Leila in New Delhi? “Every set is like every other set – the minute you say action, you go into another world. But when you say cut, the reality of where you are filming – India, Sri Lanka or New York – hits you,” she says with a gleeful smile. “What I used to love is that when I yelled cut, the catering used to be desi [Indian]. I was in heaven! Samosas, chana-bhatura. This is life!”
Leila begins streaming on Netflix on June 14.
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