This dystopian series from India has been compared to “The Handmaid’s Tale” and though on first glance that seems fair, a closer look suggests that might simplify both series. And, at the very least, “Leila” takes less than half of the time of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to get its point across, while remaining far more grim and hopeless, since even “The Handmaid’s Tale” inserts the occasional pop song to lift spirits.

The title “Leila” refers to the daughter of Shalini (Huma Qureshi), who has been taken by government forces while Shalini has been placed in a work camp. They are citizens of the totalitarian state of Aryavarta, which builds its social order on a policy of racial purity. Shalini is a Hindu woman married to a Muslim man, and their daughter is considered by the government to be mixed race.

Now kept in brutal imprisonment and slavery after the death of her husband and the seizure of her daughter, Shalini tries to navigate the system in order to find her daughter. But as she gets deeper and deeper, connecting with various factions, the suggestion is that there may not be any perfect good guys and Shalini’s war is truly a lonely one amidst a divided society where one community lives in opulence, while the other in decrepit squalor amidst oppressive garbage piles.

Adapted from a novel by Prayaag Akbar, it’s clear that “Leila” is at least partially a commentary on the caste system, taken to a more universal level, where race and collaboration are used to punish and incarcerate, and fear of outsiders is employed as a method of loyalty. That’s becoming true in plenty of countries and “Leila” may offer the grimmest prognosis yet — these aren’t necessarily circumstances confined to particular developments in leadership, belief or citizenry, but recurring ones that aren’t easily overcome, though seem ready-made to pummel the human spirit.


This film by Swiss director Katharina Wyss is often given the branding of “coming-of-age movie,” but in America, that implies certain things, typically that a young person will face certain painful obstacles that reveal the way the world works, but by the end will either have found a tribe, found a calling or found some wisdom through the experience. Wyss cuts right through that nonsense, suggesting that adolescence is tough and transitioning out of it is worse.

In an attempt to find her place in the world, Sarah (Loan Balthazar) has joined the drama troupe in her school, but her experience has the opposite effect of most of the kids involved. What connections she does make are sabotaged by her own fumbling capabilities of relating to other human beings, and her experience becomes one of constant displacement even as she proves herself to be an immersive performer on the stage. What lurks underneath is what guides her, however, and the film depicts her struggles to maintain control over what is, apparently, her true self.

At the root of it all seem to be her family dynamics, although circumstances and presentation offer a swirl of factors that muddy clear perception, and what ensues becomes a mysterious mix of real-world situations and Sarah’s own perceptions exploding into overwhelming reality. Wyss doesn’t rely on cinematic tricks to create surrealist situations. Instead, she employs a neo-realist atmosphere that makes every situation more uncomfortable, and fraught with doubt about your interpretation — just like being drawn into the life of a real teenager grappling with alienation.

Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on July 19, 2019.

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