Set in a dystopian world that is obsessing over ‘purity’ while struggling for clean air and water, Netflix latest series Leila is a dark and grim cautionary tale.
Based on Prayaag Akbar’s eponymous novel, the show that was shot in Delhi and helmed by Deepa Mehta features Huma Qureshi in the lead role of Shalini, who is desperately searching for her daughter, Leila, who she lost upon her arrest, many years ago.
The Delhi-bred Mumbai actress, who is already working on her next Netflix project, Army of the Dead, has a lot to say about her role. Excerpts:
First of all, Congratulations! Deepa Mehta called you a risk-taker and put you in the league of the Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett.
Well, Deepa is very sweet to say such things. I think she was jet-lagged when she made that comment (laughs). I don’t want to think too much about it but I have a lot of love, respect and admiration for her. I think for my performance in Leila, the entire credit goes to her. She pushed me in the workshops as well as during the filming in a way that I had to really go in and internalise that character.
What was your first reaction to Leila?
I was given the Bible...basically, the document talking about the series, the look and feel of the characters, and the world, and I found it fascinating. I thought, even if they do 50 per cent of this, we will be home!
I don’t think Indian digital television has seen anything like this in terms of storytelling and production value. I wanted to be a part of this show because, I think, this will be a show that people will talk about for many many years to come.
How relevant is Leila in present times?
Leila talks about real and pressing issues. It talks about the problems in urban development and planning, water scarcity and global warming. Although set 40 years ahead in time, the way it is represented is very immediate.
I always see Leila as a cautionary tale that we should look at and think if there is something I can do today to avoid a future as weak and as morose as shown in Leila.
Leila also seems to be making a very strong stance against religion imposition and climate change.
What do you mean by religion imposition? You are getting it wrong. What Leila talks about is purity and segregation. Purity is something that has always seen as something nice and something that should be encouraged. But, what if you take the idea like purity, on which the entire dystopian series is based upon, and stretch it to a point where it becomes something ugly and brutal?
Like how a clown keeps smiling and smiling and at times, the clown smiles in a way that looks evil and eerie. Similarly, Leila is about taking an idea, which could be very nice, but stretched to a point where it becomes aggressive. It is actually about people’s obsession with purity and a time ahead in the future where water will be scarce, where global warming will reach a level where it would lead to urban development issues and developing a certain part would mean no development or marginalisation of certain parts.
It is also a dystopia at the level of technology. We are so connected to our smartphones but in the world of Leila, everybody has access to smart devices and WiFi. But suddenly [in the series] when a totalitarian regime comes into power, you need a permit or a pass to even make a phone call.
Essentially, it is about having whatever resources you have at your disposal – natural or man-made – and to keep them in the hands of a selected few. That is the dystopia level that Leila talks about.
What are the challenges of working on a dystopian show?
The challenge was, of course, that it is a world that you have never inhabited before but it is also a world you can imagine.
For instance, when I saw the Black Mirror, it blew my mind. That was something that made me think for days and I thought the same for the script of Leila. It took me to the Black Mirror-ish zone.
Did the character take a toll on you emotionally?
There were days I would come back and feel very tired. I was living in Delhi during the shoot but I preferred to live in a hotel and not at home with my parents because I wanted that distance and I didn’t want to trouble them with my emotional state of mind.
Having said that, I am not one of those actors who would like to obsess about the method or bring work home.
I get into the zone and do my scene, but the moment I take my makeup off and change my outfit, I become myself again.
The series is being labelled as ‘Hinduphobic’...
Oh dear! That’s not our objective. The show is very clearly talking about a future where exists a totalitarian regime that is obsessed with purity and the wealthy and rich controlling all resources, present in any society at any point in time.
How important is it for an actor to be politically and socially vocal?
It is not important at all. An actor is an actor, not an activist.