Analysis: The Significance of Leila (2019) in the Age of Technology
Updated: Aug 24
Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead!
Leila, the dystopian drama set only about 30 years into the future, portrays a chilling picture of a nation under an aggressive neo-Nazi government that perpetuates its ideals through nationalism and religious fanaticism. Based on the 2017 eponymous novel by Prayaag Akbar, the reason why Leila sometimes manages to genuinely scare is that the series' dystopian world doesn't seem to be too impossible a reality for India, given the paths the country has been treading lately. The series touches on various problems plaguing India currently including xenophobia, casteism, religious bigotry, brainwashing of children, subjugation of women, the hunting of intellectuals, the silencing of dissenters and mass surveillance. Anyway I am not going to discuss any of those topics here. I would like to focus on something that have not been discussed much yet, but is equally, if not more, sinister.
Keeping the political and social aspects aside, Leila has depicted the future in two major ways- technological advancements and scarcity of resources.
Scarcity of Resources
The series starts off with a family in a swimming pool while the text on the screen reads "Luxury: Clean air and Water". As Riz (Rahul Khanna) is giving swimming lessons to his daughter Leila their home is broken into by what apparently looks like rebels. The rebels attack them for owning a swimming pool while people are dying of thirst. Even though the rebels turn out to be government agents only, by the end of the first episode we learn that the scarcity of water is indeed real. A fight breaks out on the streets as hundreds of people, some in gas masks, try to obtain water from a spilled tanker. People of all ages are huddling over each other to collect spilled water from the ground in a scene all too reminiscent of a recent viral video of an UP man collecting spilt milk from the street during the nationwide lockdown. When Bhanu (Siddharth) stands up on the upturned van to search for Shalini (Huma Qureshi) we get a glimpse of the immensely polluted world outside the walls of Aryavarta. The huge amounts of smoke coming out of the chimneys almost block out the sun. This is probably what causes the black rain in the next episode. Inside of Aryavarta though, politicians like Rao (Akash Khurana) can enjoy cleaning his swimming pool while breathing in the fresh air and boasting of zero crime rate. This is Leila's vision of the future, abundance for the rich while scarcity for the poor. I emphasize on rich because neither Shalini nor Riz was very powerful. They might have gotten away with it too, had theirs not been an inter-religion marriage. Unlike Mad Max (1979), the Book of Eli (2010) or other dystopian films Leila doesn't delude itself by imagining the rulers to be just as affected by the crisis as the ruled.
What's even more problematic is that this disparity is in no way invisible. On getting a scolding for washing her face from Shalini's tap the maid Sapna informs Shalini that her home has run out of water and the tanker won't arrive till Sunday. While Sapna may very well be lying, the lie doesn't sound improbable to Shalini. This leads me to believe that running out of water is quite a common hindrance for people like Sapna. Shalini further discovers that Sapna doesn't even get to bathe daily, prompting her to instruct Sapna to always take a bath every day before touching Leila.
Even though Aryavarta doesn't look strikingly different from our world now, the technological advancements are clear with the hologram TVs, pendant cameras, armed drone police etc. The one I find most impressive, even more than Skydome, is the holographic court cum execution chamber in the Ashram. The pyramidal chamber has in-built separate gas chambers which can effectively kill a person without leaving any trace once the projection has been turned off, all the while being holographic. That's some pretty impressive technology, used entirely for sinister purposes.
Similar themes can be found earlier in the episode too. Scanners that can non-invasively trace a baby's genetic ancestry is being used to segregate babies according to religion and "cleanse" the nation. As this reminds viewers of the 'colored' children of Apartheid (for a light read on this topic try Trevor Noah's "Born A Crime") we realize that technological advancements without true socio-cultural and psychological revolution is grossly incompetent to solve the world's problems. We live in a world where technology is getting cheaper; digital resources getting more and more abundant with each passing day. We carry a virtual world in our pockets, not at too much of a cost. Yet the problems of hunger, bigotry, child trafficking, misogyny (to name a few) is no closer to being solved. While scientists are considering the medical possibilities of gene altering, xenotransplantation and robotic surgery one of the most major causes of disease related death is diarrhoea. While food is being 3D printed millions die of starvation. Billions across the globe lack a roof over their heads while architects boast of 3D printed multi-storeyed houses. Even on personal levels problems like loneliness and low self-esteem cannot find it's solutions simply in technology.
Undermining technology is in no way my intention, and I wholeheartedly acknowledge the fact that science practised solely for welfare purposes will seriously stunt our scientific growth as a species. Proper use of technology has helped us in unique ways and continue to do so, but until and unless we aim for true psychological and philosophical growth better technology simply means better tools for the oppressors. The series drives this point home with Mr. Dixit's revelation of the dangers of Skydome. As a viewer the first question that popped in my head was, "Okay, the design has a flaw..so why can't you just inform the higher-ups of the potential dangers and buy enough time to come up with a design that wouldn't have such catastrophic consequences?" The series doesn't answer this question (and I haven't read the book). My guess is that either the higher-ups don't care, or worse, intend for this to happen. A giant air-conditioning system for the entire nation which allows the effective manipulation of weather will spell doom for the thousands (or millions, the series doesn't provide us with an estimate) living in the Unnati slums.
Requirement of Inequality
Aryavarta has been presented as the Promised Land for whatever religion the majority of Aryavartans follow. Time and again the leaders of Aryavarta have portrayed it to be a land of peace, prosperity, stability, abundance and comfort for all. The nation is so thoroughly clean that not even a single animal can be seen anywhere except for the German Shepherd used for punishing Kanika. The dilemma is that even with all that luxury and abundance people still need to clean their homes, and wash their dishes, and sew their clothes- but doing all that work oneself would contest the idea of the ultimate bliss that Aryavarta promises its citizens. Aryavarta is yet to reach the "sophistication" the residents of Axiom (Wall-E, 2008) enjoy. So what happens now?
Enter the Panchkarmis (Category 5)- the sinners, the misguided, the poor souls who strayed from the path of purity. As Mrs. Dixit inquires, "Kuch kiya hoga na? aise hi to nahi daal denge Shram Kendra mein" (you must have done something, they wouldn't put you in Labor Camp just like that). Plucked from their lives for various "crimes" and thoroughly "disciplined" these Shudra reincarnates are ready to polish your shoes, cook your food, and take care of your babies while being careful not to kiss them. In case the point is still not clear let me just put this explicitly- inequality in societies is not only typical, but essential. Inequality is present by design, it has a purpose. If the members of a society wish to indulge in exorbitant luxury then they cannot bring themselves to perform the menial tasks of everyday life. They would then require an entire community of people worse off than themselves who would perform these tasks for them. And what do you do when there isn't such a community readily available? You create it. You label the community sinners and criminals and their oppression becomes a result of their own misdeeds instead of the state sponsored slavery that it really is. This is the very essence of the Panchkarmis. Unlike our world where we may try to sympathize with the maids' and labourers' "unfortunate" lives, the people of Aryavarta know very well that the Panchkarmis did not start out that way. They didn't all hail from poor backgrounds, or lose their jobs, or make huge losses or anything like that. The punishment and disciplining of the Panchkarmis are common knowledge, yet this knowledge doesn't seem to make the slightest of difference. The Skydome portrays this point beautifully since with the inauguration of Skydome the luxury of Aryavarta will directly lead to the eradication of Unnati.
The inequality becomes even greater when we consider Unnati (similar to Iraq's Red Zone) which hosts yet another class of people who have been excluded entirely from Aryavarta. As far as the series goes the residents of Unnati were either providing unsanctioned labour for Aryavarta or were simply suspended in limbo awaiting their eventual extermination. What should be the system if a nation wishes to ensure prosperity for all while having everyone's basic needs met? I have no idea. Some hints can be taken from certain harmonious tribal communities (apologies for not providing examples, I haven't studied tribal cultures well enough yet). Although no society can be perfect, it can definitely be much better than Aryavarta and its illusion of prosperity.
Just a thought- What happens to the Panchkarmis once the use of robotic and/or AI labour becomes widespread and normal?
Shalini and Riz enjoy a comfortable, prosperous life with their daughter at the East End of Aryavarta. They illegally buy water for an underground swimming pool, even when the nation is going through a severe water crisis, and I'm guessing they would need to keep on buying water since their pool looked pretty clean. As Leila receives her swimming lessons a very familiar thought crosses my mind. 'maybe the problem isn't scarcity, but distribution'. Later in the episode Shalini learns that her maid Sapna doesn't even get to bathe daily. Shalini's reaction to this discovery is more of light disgust than of concern, even though she is very well aware of the sanitization needs of human beings, as is evident by her cleaning the sink after Sapna leaves.
Shalini, even though not directly causing problems for everyone, is part of a bigger problem. It's the indifference of people like Shalini and Riz, people who just want peace, people who just want a happy life, people who just aren't "into politics", that plays one of the biggest roles in the oppression of billions. One can ask, "Is it wrong to wish for a swimming pool?" When people around you are fighting for spilled water, it is. Another frequently asked question is, "What can we do about it?". Well, for starters they could have used the enormous amounts of money spent bribing water officials into something more benevolent, or simply less selfish.
Directed by Shanker Raman, Deepa Mehta and Pawan Kumar, Leila is a brilliantly made series with thorough detailed worldbuilding and crisp storytelling. The characters are compelling, as are the turn of events. I would say it has been wrongly marked as Sci-Fi since all the themes presented in the film has already been practised in some way somewhere in the world. Watching Leila you don't get to experience a novel world that sparks your wonder and imagination, you get to observe your own world a little more closely. Leila could have done with some better shot fight scenes, and the last two episodes seem rushed with things getting a little too convenient for Shalini, yet nothing in the series is quite unforgivable except for the extremely annoying Rahul Khanna.
What Leila realizes is that however great strides technology makes it will still be used by corrupt leaders with zero interest in the common welfare; that resources, even when abundant, will still be unavailable to the poor. "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," - Huma Qureshi in an interview with the The New Indian Express.