Archita Kashyap - 55 weeks ago
This year, Deepa Mehta’s eponymous, personal and disturbing film on the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947 completes twenty years. Two decades on, Mehta has explored undercurrents of hatred, rage and opportunism in the dystopian drama Leila.
Loosely based on Prayaag Akbar’s novel set in a dystopian nation called Aryavarta, the series explores and develops a complex story about the underlying masculinity of right wing politics by adapting to present day Indian reality in a thought provoking manner. Mehta is part of a stellar creative team that has created this future- perverse universe of Leila but her signature exploration - of how a relationship between a Hindu and Muslim can manifest - rings similar to 1947: Earth and its story line.
(Huma Qureshi in a still from Leila (Image courtesy - Netflix)
In both cases, books form the core of these powerful, nuanced stories. 1947: Earth is drawn from Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, The Ice Candy Man. The author distinctly recalls memories and feelings of reactive, emotionally intense responses that this simple, real-life like story drew for her. Sidhwa’s novel captures the complete dissolution of normalcy and sudden arrival of blood thirst and violence that the Partition brought to families and people of India and Pakistan. Mehta had adapted this book with a personalised element of a convincing, simple love story between a Hindu domestic help (Nandita Das) and a Muslim household worker (Rahul Khanna). Here a jealous man in love uses mob violence as tool to seek vengeance. Lovers, families and cultures are torn apart. In Leila, a Hindu-Muslim marriage is ripped to shreds on grounds of privilege and breeding a ‘mixed breed’ child. The themes of religious prejudice and socio-economic realities coming together to hurt the perceived ‘other’ in society, merge in this series.
(Nandita Das and Rahul Khanna in a still from 1947: Earth (Image courtesy - Hamilton Mehta Productions)
Mehta is credited as creative executive producer, co-writer and director of a couple of episodes for this series. In a round of interviews while promoting Leila, Mehta has constantly credited creator of this series, Urmi Juvekar, for having developed an extensive ‘Bible’ of its universe, which prompted her to build upon this dystopian world that draws from present day real issues of urban India. In Leila, water is currency and very sparse, clean air is both a paid privilege and a tool of violence. At the time of writing this article, Chennai grapples with crippling water crisis with taps running dry for 5-6 days in middle class neighbourhoods and complete absence of water in poorer neighbourhoods. Delhi is the world’s most polluted city, and most North Indian cities grapple with life threatening air pollution during winters. And the infamous Ghazipur waste dump in Indirapuram, on the outskirts of the national capital is the garbage wall of separation between those who live in the Hindu right wing dictatorship in Aryavarta, and those who rebel against it. Leila hasn’t created an imagined art direction based future, it has built upon existing gated communities that are air conditioned and super safe; and the mayhem of living in poverty in urban slums and bastis across Indian cities. This adaptation, of what is real around us today and what it could be in future if these issues remain unchecked, is the most powerful and compelling element of Leila. Mehta has drawn on the possibility of falling in love and then committing a crime in a near convincing manner.
(Nandita Das and Aamir Khan in a still from 1947: Earth (Image courtesy - Hamilton Mehta Productions)
This theme, of forbidden love, rides through her best known work on film, including Fire and Water. In 1947: Earth, it finds the most poignant manifestation because it draws upon lived historical experience of Mehta’s family. Her family had faced violence, uprooting and death during this dark period in post-modern history. The Partition remains the greatest artificial migration of people in recorded memory. Many lost their homes and identities forever. Mehta’s family moved to Canada, yet their past remained a constant reminder. She made the film with indulgent love scenes, raw touch and feel of human intimacy and the verdant colors of life and growth (terracotta brown and red were Mehta’s color inspirations for this story). While speaking to the film quarterly, she stated that shooting and releasing this film in the current day atmosphere of censorship and restrictions would have made it an impossible task. In 1999, 1947: Earth brought to life a non-glossified, credible exploration of lived human experience so close to home for Indians and Pakistanis. While the film won accolades and a sizeable audience amongst diaspora, Leila is poorly received today. Flaws in execution and the lack of solid performances might be a factor. But perhaps the biggest factor that has worked against this series today is raw muscle flexing and aggression against contrarian liberal opinions on social media. Leila goes against a majoritarian opinion so dominant in India’s political and popular discourse.
But the fact that Mehta would back this web series, add the heft and credibility that her name adds to it, indicates her fortitude as a filmmaker and creative mind. Mehta will always delve upon the fault lines that the mainstream likes to gloss over. And thank God for her artfully, subtly dissenting voice - for it resonates much beyond a limited span of time on celluloid.
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