Forays into SF are limited in both Indian cinema and the land of television. Any kind of dystopia usually intrigues, bringing with it the propensity for imagining different types of political scenarios, which are often grounded in our world. Adapted from the novel by Prayaag Akbar, Leila, a six part dystopian mini-series, commissioned by Netflix, and directed by Deepa Mehta, conjures an India set in the not too distant future in which a Hindu, Brahmin elite has outlawed mixed blood children, inter-caste/race/religion marriages and rules through a totalitarian system reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. Aryavarta, a new nation, creed and ideologue, led by a smugly benign Dr Joshi (Sanjay Suri), alludes explicitly to Modi’s Hindutva mob of cut-throat neofascists. This is India in which water is scarce, controlled by the elite, where slums are the preserve of the downtrodden and pure blood Indians reside in heavily fortified militarised zones.
The narrative is anchored in the story of Shalini (Huma Qureshi), a Hindu women, once married to a Muslim man, Rizwan Chowdhury (Rahul Khanna), who has to find her daughter Leila, a mixed blood child, who has been stolen from her, and as we discover, brainwashed by the state and proselytised to become a disciple of the Aryavarta. It is worth noting that Leila is moored in the vivid performance by Huma Qureshi, an actress who showed a lot of early promise but sadly faded away with the lack of quality roles available for women in Indian cinema and television. Many like Shalini are interned, stripped of their citizenship and identity, and forced to work in labour camps where they are brutalized and conditioned into accepting Aryavarta as the one true doctrine.
If all of this sounds strangely familiar to you then that’s because much of the neofascist imagery recycled in the series has a real life bearing in the rise of Hindutva in mainstream Indian society. If dystopia is a wretched imagining, projecting nightmarish social and political anxieties, Aryavarta is a terrifying evolution of Hindutva. For instance, the destruction of the Taj Mahal, celebrated by the Aryavarta goons live on TV, an imagined spectacle to erase a past and sever the plural, syncretic cultural identity that shapes what India is today, recalls the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the symbolic catalyst for Hindutva’s ascendancy and unending demonization of Muslims in India.
Nonetheless, an opposition exists, working clandestinely, infiltrating and forging fragile alliances in an attempt to undermine Aryavarta. The construction of a dome, that will further fortify and protect the sacred people of Aryavarta, will be at the expense of the poor, marginalised and invisible underclass living in the slums, a genocidal act orchestrated and sanctioned by the state. However, religious fanaticism and bigotry is not exclusive to the staunch Hindu fundamentalists but double edged, not only indicating a hypocrisy amongst some of the Aryavarta believers, but situating fanaticism as intertwined with undercurrents of power, class and caste. And while the work of dissident writers and artists who have been outlawed and banned from society, Shalini’s infiltration of Aryavarta’s powerful elite unpicks an appreciation for the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, suggesting innate cultural sensibilities cannot be erased that easily.