‘Leila’ Review: Netflix’s New Original Series is Not ‘Anti-Hindu’

Netflix is back with yet another original series Leila, directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar. It is about a dystopian future in a place called Aryavarta, where basic utilities such as water and air become a luxury.

Here, the world is different.

The series is based on Prayaag Akbar’s critically acclaimed novel by the same name. It was based on an authoritarian regime, which silences dissent and attacks intellectuals. Hence, when Netflix announced that they are going to adapt it into a series, the news raised few eyebrows. Many argued that the current political climate might not be conducive enough for such a show.

And going by the reception, it seems those people were right.

The show has received some flak from the masses for allegedly being “anti-Hindu” – an argument prevalent on social media.

Leila is Shalini Choudhary’s (Huma Qureshi) story who goes against her sect to marry a Muslim man, Rizwan Choudhary (Rahul Khanna). This is a crime in Aryavarta’s deeply divided society.

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Things were “normal” in their lives until one day some goons (called repeaters) attack their house, kill Rizwan and send Shalini to a “Women Welfare Centre.” Their daughter, Leila, gets separated.

Over the course of the show, Sheila goes around looking for her daughter while battling the totalitarian system created by Joshi (Sanjay Suri) – the system where society is deeply divided by caste and religion.

Each community has its own section: walled and heavily guarded. Intermingling between communities is not just unwelcome but also heavily penalised.

Some of the show’s elements can be compared to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. This show echoes the book’s themes of misogyny and masculine tyranny. But those similarities start fading away as the show progresses.

Even though the lead character is a female, the story doesn’t dwell much on gender politics and instead focuses more on her personal quest.

Although the premise is based on a dystopian future, one can find uncanny similarities between this show and our present-day society.

The idea of “cultural purity” in the story trickles down to real-life incidents in our country. Perhaps that is why this show is making a few of us a bit uncomfortable.

Some have even branded the makers “anti-Hindu” and called upon the public to boycott Netflix. If one goes and looks at social media conversations over Leila, they will find a plethora of comments vociferously bashing the show. Even the IMDb page is full of negative reviews. Except a few who are genuinely talking about the content, the majority of them are offended by the subject material.

Which brings us to the question: Is this show really an affront to our sacred culture?

First of all, the public who are claiming it to be “anti-Hindu” might not have seen the show in its entirety.

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Even though the show talks about intolerance, inequality, authoritarianism and even hyper-segregation, it never tries to suggest a religion-based state. In fact, the show’s writers have very sincerely made the world look like a “secular” one.

The onus is more on religious purity rather than on religious supremacy.

Instead, the show uses hyper-nationalism as one of its central themes. Almost reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, it uses current day problems such as pollution, the water supply crisis and caste-based discrimination and presents a hypothetical and anarchic future based on that.

Hence, the argument that it is putting up an evil face of Hinduism to the world doesn’t hold true.

And the people who are making this argument are perhaps deeply insecure with their own belief system. They want to believe that the liberals are here to take away their religion and that they should fight back.

For them, Leila is a threat to their cultural identity, and they think that it is designed to dig out deeper and darker flaws in their religion.

But the greatest irony here is, by calling the show “anti-Hindu” and boycotting Netflix, they are facilitating the so-called agenda put forth by Leila themselves. By doing this, they are, in a way, reaffirming the same dystopia which the show is trying to sell.

By linking this show to a particular religion or the ongoing torrent of nationalism (which the makers have so far avoided), is detrimental and harms their own cause.

Imtiaz Uddin is an undergraduate student. He is passionate about writing fiction. He is an amateur blogger and likes to write about his experience and point of views.