If the book was disquieting, the trailer was equally compelling. After an anxious wait, it’s time to dive into Leila’s stream of consciousness. Based on dystopian alternate reality novel of the same name by Prayaag Akbar, the Netflix original is helmed by noted filmmaker Deepa Mehta who has co-directed the six-episode series along with Shankar Raman and Pawan Kumar. “Leila” stars Huma Qureshi as the central character of a woman named Shalini whose three-year-old daughter Leila mysteriously disappears after the tragic death of her husband.
As part of the promotions, Netflix invited us to Greater Noida’s Gautam Buddha University where the last leg of “Leila” was being shot. The university’s humongous circular library served as the perfect setting for Leila’s dystopian world. On its sidelines, a casually dressed Huma was taking small sips of coffee from her Starbucks mug. Gradually, she opened up on the challenge of working with three directors on the series, and how platforms like Netflix are providing a new lease of life to creative storytelling.
How do you see “Leila” is relevant to our times?
“Leila” is something that’s very dear to me. It tells a story that’s very relevant. “Leila”, although it is set in a dystopian world, is essentially about empowerment which tells the journey of a woman in search of her lost daughter. “Leila” got me excited right from the very moment I met Deepa and she shared her vision. What makes it so special is its context. I believe there is no story without a context. You see there are so many stories that we come across but not every story is able to touch us deeply. Hopefully, with “Leila” you will experience something that stirs up your deepest feelings. I don’t think that India has ever seen anything like “Leila” before. So the challenge is big and that’s what we all are trying to achieve as a team.
How do you see the show’s dystopian setting? How does it affect you as a performer?
The thing with a dystopian setting is that as a performer you have to deal with situations that you hardly have any references for. I think that’s what makes it that much more exciting. Also, it would make a lot of people to imagine themselves in those impossible situations. Also, what is dystopia? It is essentially a utopia that’s sold to you by those who run the show. We all are sold dreams but do we ever get what we are promised? What if the reality is not as rosy as the dream that you were sold? I think Leila explores that. Leila dares to ask questions that the society usually doesn’t allow us to ask.
What is it like to be directed by three different individuals while playing the same character?
It has been a great learning experience for me. Deepa, Shankar, and Pawan have contributed so much to what the screenwriters had initially put together and what the book originally was. So, it is quite an interestingly balanced system that Netflix has managed to put together internationally where we have different directors working in harmony.
Take, for example, the case of “Mindhunter”. David Fincher has directed that show with, I think, three other individuals. Speaking of “Leila”, I have enjoyed working with all the three directors. I think they all bring their unique experiences with them to the whole thing. Interestingly, with all three, I have managed to explore another side of my character. With each episode I was actually able to add another dimension because I didn’t like to play the character in a monotone. Just like in life we all make mistakes and learn from them. So while working with three different directors I somewhere managed to have that gradual progression in the character arc in that sense.
How faithful is the Netflix series to the novel on which it is based?
Firstly, Prayaag has written a wonderful book. I really loved reading it. But what we have managed to do with the show is that we have taken the book as a base and have really given it wings. When you watch the show you will be really surprised to see how the series builds on the book.
There are certain elements which Prayaag only briefly touched in the book and we have really taken them to the next level. The world that we have built is far more diverse and richer in terms of how the society is.
Already there have been some comparisons between “Leila” and “Handmaid’s Tale”. How do you see the similarities between the two?
Well, I don’t think “Leila” is anything like “Handmaid’s Tale”. The two are very different shows. Of course, I would really like Elisabeth Moss to watch “Leila” and I personally love “Handmaid’s Tale”. I know the one-line sounds deceivingly similar to Handmaid’s but it is very different and when you watch it you will realise that. But, I understand that there would naturally be some comparisons. It’s like when you do a romantic film it’s bound to be compared to “Romeo Juliet”. It’s as basic as that. Leila is so rooted in India and our culture that I think it will be nothing like “Handmaid’s Tale”.
As someone who has extensively worked in the Mumbai film industry as well as done some interesting projects down south, how do you look upon the web as an entertainment platform?
To be honest, it is a big breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief because what was happening not just in India but the world over was that we were getting restricted with this struggle to do certain box-office numbers. Filmmakers and artists were forced to try and streamline their work into a certain mould.
It was like following some sort of a checklist to deal with, with sword hanging on our heads. What the coming of Netlfix and other players has done is that now you just need to focus on telling a good story and that story need not have songs for the sake of it or a certain set formula to it. It is so liberating.
Today, internationally, some of the best work is happening on these kinds of platforms. With this show, I know my target audience is not just 1500 screens across India but that it is actually going to reach more than 190 countries. For me, that is fascinating.