Leila: Siddharth, Arif Zakaria on Netflix's upcoming dystopian drama and the politics of being an actor

Manik Sharma

Jun 11, 2019 12:08:11 IST

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila follows the story of Shalini, an elite woman from the right side of the tracks who chooses to spend her life with a man from one of the minority communities. The climate of impunity and state-sponsored sectarianism is such that the two are made to eventually split. Shalini’s daughter Leila goes missing, and thus starts a journey that is reminiscent of India’s present day politics, its anger founded on difference – be it born out of cast or religion. Leila is a paean to the dystopian genre from Netflix that has already had an outing in India in the form of Ghoul. Though the story of Leila hinges on Shalini, played by Huma Qureshi, the men of the story play roles just as pivotal. Of them, both Siddharth and Arif Zakaria sit down with me on the sets to have a chat.

Siddharth, an actor still most famous in the Hindi heartland for his role in Rang De Basanti, plays in this series the instrument of an oppressive state. “I may not agree with the politics of the role I am playing but that is what is intriguing about acting itself. The fact that you get to be someone else, the opportunity to be someone you are not. At least that is what excites me the most,” he says. Sitting not too far away from him is the veteran theatre actor Arif Zakaria, who last caught the eye in a quietly chilling role in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi. “I play a character called Iyer, who heads a purity camp that reforms couples who have married outside their caste and religion. He is extremely right-wing in that sense, and is a stickler for rules and conservative philosophies,” Zakaria says.

Leila: Siddharth, Arif Zakaria on Netflixs upcoming dystopian drama and the politics of being an actor

Siddharth in a still from Leila.

The avowed politics of the show that both the actors acknowledge is somewhere against the grain of their own. Zakaria’s uncle and brother are both politicians and the actor is himself of liberal and plural leaning. “We do discuss politics at home. My family is of course active in politics, and therefore we have an opinion on everything. But the politics of what I do as an actor doesn’t necessarily carry over into the household,” he says.

On the other hand, Siddharth is unhesitatingly open about his opinion. His tweets often go viral and he hasn’t shied away from calling out the political opportunism of Bollywood in the recent past. “If you think you know me entirely from my social media persona, you are wrong. I am more than my tweets, but yes, I like to express my views on things happening in the country. Working on something that is the exact opposite of what I believe in is a challenge worth my while. It is the kind of work I look forward to,” he says. Asked if Bollywood’s reluctance to voice its politics, or take a stand is reflective of something, Siddharth firmly answers, “I don’t think anyone should hold back. At least I don’t think I have to or I will. If I have an opinion about something, I say it openly and will continue to do so.”

Zakaria’s character, Iyer, the actor says, is a contradiction of sorts. “He is well-educated, well-trained but religious and conservative in so many ways. You see people who are Harvard-educated in mundus, it’s just that — people anchored in deep cultural roots,” he says. There is hypocrisy to his role that Zakaria could have perhaps modelled on some people active in politics even today. “I could have, perhaps, subconsciously modelled my character on people we get to observe on a daily basis. That is at least something that has happened over the last ten fifteen years, the rise of people with strong religious, cultural backgrounds. Their philosophies might be strange and contradictory to their elite education, but they have grown from strength to strength,” Zakaria says.

Arif Zakaria in a still from Leila.

Arif Zakaria in a still from Leila. YouTube screengrab.

Siddharth’s outspoken social media presence is as curious as his absence from mainstream Hindi cinema, considering how a similar stance taken by the actor Prakash Raj has led Bollywood to distance itself from him. “I don’t revise what I say. I am at a point in my life where, I believe, everything I say is well informed, well thought. I just think you need to exist in your purest form, say what you want to say,” he says. The two actors do not endorse ways to inject a rapport between characters. “You will see in the series that Iyer hangs a huge photograph of his boss, a megalomaniac himself, in his office. It kind of hovers over everything he does, the devotion is an aspect of his character,” Zakaria says. Considering the content, and the rumours of censorship bearing down on Netflix, does either see their lives being complicated by the show? “These are just characters. My life in reality is pretty simple. In this story, though, it is quite complicated,” says, Siddharth, smiling.

Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 12:08:11 IST