Leila, Netflix’s latest Indian offering, takes us into a (relatively) unsurprising dystopian future. With actors Huma Qureshi (who plays Shalini, the mother) and Siddharth Suryanarayan (who plays Bhanu, an Aryavarta servant) in the lead, the web adaptation of Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 novel, on the surface of it, is the story of a mother’s search for her daughter in a segregationist world. A world where resources are scarce and walled communities are gospel for any kind of progress.
While the basic premise of the show is similar to its source material, Netflix’s Leila deviates slightly from what Akbar covers in his novel. Read on to find out all the ways in which the show differs from the book.
1. Leila’s Kidnapping
In the show, Shalini’s daughter Leila gets kidnapped after some goons break into their house. Despite the violence, the incident is downplayed and muted. While the reason for the break-in and the set-up is largely the same, the show fails to convey the impact of the situation.
In Prayaag Akbar’s novel, the goons (or Repeaters) break in while Shalini and her husband are hosting a party. The humiliation and helplessness that Shalini experiences while being dragged out of her home is missing in the show.
2. Shalini’s Escape From Aryavarta
Huma Qureshi’s character in the show is quite rebellious. From failing the purity test and being exiled to Labor Camp to repeatedly trying to escape the regime of Aryavarta, Shalini tries to fight the system in every way possible.
However in the book, Shalini is the exact opposite. She wants to find her daughter but she is also dutiful as she recognises the power of the Council. Her sole aim is to make it through the Purity Camp and get a relatively more dignified job so she can have access to the Towers and continue her search for Leila.
3. Bhanu and the Rebel Army
Prayaag Akbar’s writing gives us only a passing insight into the emerging rebel groups within the Aryavarta regime. Shalini never actually mingles with them. Moreover, the character of Bhanu (Siddharth) doesn’t exist in the book.
On the other hand, the Netflix show does a fantastic job with Bhanu, who heads one of the rebel groups determined to bring down Aryavarta. He helps bring alive the totalitarian regime in ways that are missing from Prayaag’s narrative.
4. Shalini’s Time at the Purity Camp
There is a significant difference in the timeline of the show and the book. In the former, Huma Qureshi’s character only spends a couple of years at the Purity Camp. In the book, Shalini is there for 16 long years, during which her mental health seems to have drastically deteriorated.
This difference in timeline also affects Leila’s age. In the show, Leila is still a child when Shalini finds her. In the book, however, Leila is supposed to be 19 years old at the time of Shalini’s release from the camp.
5. Symbolism and Socio-Political Undertones
Netflix’s Leila is a terrifyingly accurate reflection of India’s current socio-political climate. With its usage of Sanskritised Hindi and the name ‘Aryavarta’, which has been directly borrowed from ancient Hindu texts, Leila’s symbolism can’t be ignored. But that’s not something Prayaag Akbar intended.
In Prayaag’s Leila, the dystopian reality is filled with generic names like the ‘Repeaters’, ‘Council’, ‘Towers’, ‘Sectors’, etc. Descriptions are vague, perhaps to invoke that kind of iciness, and highly unimaginative. For example, the slogan “Jai Aryavarta” directly translates to “Purity for All”.
6. How Shalini Finds Leila
Prayaag Akbar’s Leila is a lot more simplistic than the Netflix show. In the latter, Shalini’s search for her daughter is elaborate and full of plot twists. She goes from a child trafficking agency to tracking her brother-in-law’s movements to finally sneaking her way into the Political Sector.
Meanwhile, in the novel, Shalini, after gaining access to the Records Tower, tracks down children in the area who are of the same age as her daughter. Her method is neat, self-sufficient and a reminder of how organised and navigable the oppressive regime is.
Naturally, the show ends up being a lot more dramatic than the book, as the latter focuses more on Shalini’s emotional journey and uses Leila’s abduction only as a tool to further the plot.
7. Shalini’s First Encounter With Leila
A major incident that separates the show from the book is when and how Shalini comes face-to-face with her daughter, Leila. In the show, Huma Qureshi discovers her daughter in a school. She tries to meet her but is shooed away by the teachers for belonging to the Labor Camp.
In the novel, Prayaag Akbar’s Shalini doesn’t exactly get to see her daughter. She finds someone who is close to Leila’s age and is convinced that it’s her but it is never revealed whether or not she really is her daughter. And unlike Huma’s character in the show, she doesn’t get a chance to speak to the girl.
8. Huma Qureshi’s Character Takes Centre Stage
In Prayaag Akbar’s Leila, Shalini is not special; she is as non-specific as the world around her. In the larger narrative, she does exactly what she is supposed to — giving us an insight into the forces of power. As she hops from the Purity camp to the Towers to the East Slum, we see the world through her jaded, hopeful eyes.
Netflix’s version of Shalini does not become one with her surroundings; rather, she stands out. She fights the system, questions and tricks it fearlessly. She is meant to evoke feelings of resistance.
Simply put, Netflix’s Leila is the story of Shalini versus Aryavarta, whereas Prayaag’s Leila is the story of a dystopian totalitarian regime with countless sufferings within.
9. Climax of the Book vs the Show
While both the show and the book offer a non-conclusive, cliff-hanger ending, the book has more closure to it.
In the final paragraph of the novel, Shalini is standing outside the building and staring up at the girl she thinks is Leila. Shalini feels like the girl is calling out to her but as her fragility becomes more evident, we’re no longer sure if she’s hallucinating or not.
Netflix’s Shalini finds herself in the midst of a potential act of terrorism that she herself is orchestrating. As she faces the one and only Joshi ji and is abandoned by her daughter simultaneously, she is struck by a grave dilemma — the answer to which we never find out.
However, what unites the two incidents is the sense of helplessness that plagues Shalini as a result of her quest to find her Leila.
(Leila is currently streaming on Netflix.)
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