Last few months, I had been working on a story of “India 2030” set in various cities and towns of India, covering day-to-day life of ordinary people – you, me, our friends and family, but without water and clean air and with a tremendous amount of heat. Ace filmmaker Deepa Mehta of the earth, water, fire trilogy almost beat me on my endeavor with her latest web series.
Leila reminds me of the writing on a rearview mirror “Objects are closer than they appear,” “Future is closer than it is portrayed.”
Leila released on Netflix on June 14, 2019; that no doubt I had already binge-watched by June 15. On June 19, Chennai ran out of the water, with its four main reservoirs at standing at 0.3% capacity. On June 10 Delhi had crossed 48 C, already on June 6, Churru had passed 50 C. Beyond 45 C, the probability of survival starts to decrease rapidly, and at 50C, it starts to terminate to a single digit. In high heats, stomachs begin to dysfunction, people experience shortness of breath, suffer from nausea, headache, and body ache shoot up.
At that stage, I wonder, between a choice of cold air and clean water vs. civil liberties and right to freedom, what would I pick?
Set in circa 2047 Leila’s Aryavarta is ruled by an authoritarian regime led by a leader called “Joshi.” Joshi’s world is obsessed with purity, castes (category 1 to 5), religions, Indian innovations (aka Skydome). Neighborhoods are segregated, have high walls, rich people are assisted by lots of semi-slave house-helps, long queues of water in Chennai, and large air conditioner prisoner population in Delhi. Gurgaon. India 2019 doesn’t feel much different from Aryavrata 2047. In the later episode, we meet women who have been captured for marrying outside their category. Some even had “permissions” which were later suspended.
We are taken into flashbacks, where we witness the slow and gradual handover of rights and freedoms and steady acceptance of the so-called “right” and “normal.”
High Walls surrounding neighborhoods, normal. Room air purifiers, normal. Requiring permission of the state to marry someone, normal, standing in a movie hall in a fake show of nationalistic patriotism for fear of getting beaten up, normal, asking your brother to shave off his beard to not look Muslim, normal. Every flashback was a journey that India is walking on to its path of totalitarianism.
Leila is slow, steady scary and real. We do not realize when the present turn to flashback and fictions turns to reality. Deepa Mehta has once again aced the art of filmmaking. But, I think Deepa has got her villain all wrong. Another iconic TV show of our generation: Game of Thrones also got their villain all wrong.
Replace White Walkers with Global Warming and let Breach of the Wall by the melting of Greenland’s surface, and I just fulfilled your wish of visiting Westeros. GOT showed humans defeating the night king in episode 3 of a 6 episode finale season, to bring more emphasis on the human to human conflict (and villainy of Cersei & Dany), with this well-meaning assumption that if we assemble our entire might, brains, and innovation, we can defeat the all-too-powerful supernatural villain, and we only have our inner demons to conquer.
Deepa Mehta treaded on the same line with Leila showcasing the social, religious, political – the “human” problems in a background of a “natural” existential threat. I think D, D & D (Deepa Mehta, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) and we need a few lessons of environmental science 101 to identify their main villain.
While Leila is a beautifully written and depicted story, 2047 Aryavarta will not be able to host more than half the scenes of the show. For instance, standing on a roof will be impossible for more than half the year when the temperature will be perennially above 45-degree Celsius. Any fighting scenes by any goons will be tricky with blackened lungs.
For wealthy people, luxuries will be ample, but health will be rare, and the good looking people of high rise apartments and good jobs will be found more coughing wheezing sneezing fighting cancer than hosting ladies gatherings at home. As much as India runs on quasi-slavery house-help, the 2047 household supply chain will be somewhat strained for the low probability of survival from regular heat attacks and early-onset cancer.
While Joshi and his regime is a worthy villain, they don’t stand much chance for survival, let alone the display of totalitarian evil, in the face of events planned by the real super-villain aka mother nature.
The background theme Leila explores is “How were (are) people so blind and ignorant to not see it coming for them right in front of their eyes.” To some level, even Deepa Mehta underestimated the power and outcome of such air & water circumstances. The answer lies in the beautiful ignorance.
No one ever thinks it is going to happen to them. No one in Gurgaon thinks of a life when taps will run out of water for weeks on end. When high rise societies are not able to siphon enough water tankers, the supply-demand curve will be so strained; the market pricing mechanisms will no longer stand. No one thinks of life in 55 degrees C when stepping into a Mercedes standing in 2 pm heat will be a death sentence. No one feels that breathing hazardous air quality will lead to a slow, steady, and new death sentence. No one thinks it is going to happen to them.
Till it will, and we will find ourselves like Shalini on a polluted stinky burning mountain of waste if not searching for Leila, then searching for clean air and water for your Leila.