Orwellian, yet Distinctly Indian

Artwork source: Dribble
Artwork source: Dribble

Leila had been on my mind for a long time. My countdown to its first episode started on the day I saw the announcement poster. In the days leading up to its release, the Netflix social media machinery was on overdrive. Promotional pictures and videos kept popping up unannounced on my timelines. I complied with the like button.

I cleared out an entire weekend to binge-watch its six episodes: lunch dates and mid-summer beer sessions were unapologetically rescheduled. The house chores, which I otherwise delay until the weekend is slipping out of sight, were wrapped up before breakfast on the Saturday. For lunch, I ordered a large tub of Sathyam’s popcorn and watermelon juice.

But, I was not ready for Leila. Once the show started playing and the story went deep, I felt a sharp, physical discomfort. The dystopian imagery of a world where life was controlled by ideological allegiance hit too close to home. The rhythm and pace of my heartbeat felt like the chorus of a death metal song. I had to press the pause button because I couldn’t take it anymore.

War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery. George Orwell’s words were floating in front of my eyes as I ambled about on my terrace with a bottle of water. The world I lived in, and still inhabit, isn’t very different from the one Winston Smith was navigating.

Back in college, I was introduced to 1984 as the book you will never forget. The oddity of that pitch has stayed with me. Only after reading it cover-to-cover, probably as an excuse to delay studying calculus, did I truly appreciate what it meant. But back in the naive days of 2011, I didn’t think such a world could manifest, definitely not within a decade. By June 2019 — the month Leila released — India had completed a metamorphosis into a surveillance state of the most sinister variety.

In post-truth India, you are as free as your public persona allows you to be. We are stalked continuously: some by foot, some others by trending hashtags. Minorities, in ideas or birth certificates, aren’t welcome. Comedians are asked more questions than policymakers because thinking for yourself is as passé as hand-written letters. Placard-holding students are fired on; rogue gunmen are escorted to safety.

Leila brought this to the screen with stunning clarity. The message was evident in the terror on the faces of the vulnerable and the stillness of the badge-wearing perpetrators; in the ghostly colour of its sky and the low cello lines accentuating a motorcade of vigilantes. It was Orwellian yet distinctly Indian.

The flow of truth can be controlled. Over the last few years, the establishment has stretched every covert and overt sinew to build a 21st-century version of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. I don’t think most of us would notice if the popular news channels renamed themselves to derivates of Government TV. Information on everything between foreign policy and the diet of an upcoming Bollywood actor is controlled by convenience. A paramilitary insignia on a cricketer’s glove gets more airtime in this country than many starving farmer communities. COVID, we are told with a straight face, can be cured by papad.

This week, India’s central government signed off a gazette which brought digital media content — films, web shows, and news programmes on online streaming platforms — under the control of The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. It basically means every movie and series on Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube etc will need the government’s seal of approval.

Leila, the show, is based on an excellent book by Prayag Akbar. In the world post this move by the government, its life would be limited to Kindle libraries and Huma Qureshi would be one stirring performance poorer. But in such a world, would Prayag Akbar even get to launch Leila? Would the thirst for control be limited to visual media? Can it?

I fear for us because books are sacred. The thing with books, especially those which broach sensitive topics, is that the author cannot cut corners. Irrespective of their preferred side of a fence, they must drill deep into themselves to publish a book worth buying. There is a dignity in organising large swathes of information into accessible knowledge, even if you are writing a novel on how orange is a better vitamin C source than sweet lime.

If we are moving towards a world where all forms of creative media is controlled from the underground bunker of one ideological monument, I fear for us and those who will come after us. If you cannot see knowledge, how will you reach it?