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Heeramandi Review: Romance, Revenge, Rebellion

May 01, 2024 12:31 IST

Heeramandi, a passion project that took off after years in development and planning, mirrors Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film-making's finest and frustrating features, observes Sukanya Verma.

It's recommended to get a good night's sleep before stepping inside Sanjay Leela Bhansali's world, lest exhausted eyes strain to appreciate the extensive craftsmanship on display. This is true for all of Bhansali's feature film length creations but more so for his OTT debut, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, which spans eight sprawling episodes.

Often, Bhansali's preoccupation with canvas has led us to believe he likes to paint through scenes.

Whether it's the 21st century or 18th, exquisite brass lamps adorn a precise spot of a symmetrically composed frame.

There's not a corner of cloth where zardozi cannot reach nor enough polki in the world that can contain the sparkle of his ambitions.

Acts become rituals in his luminous vision, something as simple as lighting a diya or taking a bath.

His characters are poems dwelling in homes the size of tomes. Their larger-than-life despair is as gorgeous as their larger-than-life dreams.


Beauty cannot be left to the eyes of the beholder.

It must exist in all its authenticity. Bhansali will not have it any other way.

An aesthete, a connoisseur or a virtuoso? Bhansali wears the curse and boon of being possessed by these attributes unwaveringly.

By his own admission, he's one of a kind for wanting to weave breathtaking architecture into his breathless narrative.

But the fantasy it leads to is so utterly romantic and remote, the only responses possible are awe and, sometimes, annoyance.

Heeramandi, a passion project that took off after years in development and planning, mirrors his film-making's finest and frustrating features.

Take Devdas, Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat or Gangubai Kathiawadi, operatic period dramas appeal to Bhansali’s inner classicist, desi vintage drama fetishist and Broadway musical enthused mind. Or pretty much anything categorised under 'the golden era of'.

Set in 1920s Lahore when British India was on the cusp of change, Heeramandi's courtesans survive personal and professional storms against the backdrop of India's fight for independence and Nawabi culture on a slow but sure decline.

Its packed schedule of dawaats, mehfils, mushairas and jalsas is rife for Bhansali's favourite elements of art and opulence.

Where his deep-rooted admiration for K Asif's Mughal-E-Azam trickled in the star-crossed romance of Bajirao Mastani, the film-maker doffs his hat at Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah's tawaif roots in Heeramandi.

Using its many dramatic turnarounds and ethereal imagery -- sights of dancing courtesans in every balcony, a colourful spread of itr bottles, mujra meltdowns and glowering khandaan-conscious patriarchs -- the Meena Kumari classic comes in handy highlighting the hypocrisy and heartbreak encountered by Heeramandi's bejewelled denizens.

Making a conscious effort to distinguish courtesans from prostitutes, something that's rarely mutually exclusive as per Hindi films, Heeramandi offers an intimate look into a world marked by excellence, etiquette, poise and rules.

It's a time when visiting nautch girls at their kothas was considered a rite of passage of sorts among nawabs and noblemen where they discovered the magic of music, poetry and seduction in exchange of their generous patronage.

Hailed as the queen of this space and Shahi Mahal, Mallikajaan's (Manisha Koirala) resplendent albeit ruthless matriarch figure runs the show flanked by her ever faithful minion duo, Satto-Phatto (a most delightful pairing of Nivedita Bhargava and Jayati Bhatia) whilst micromanaging her band of melodramatic sisters, Lajjo (Richa Chadha) and Waheeda (Sanjeeda Shaikh) and headstrong daughters, Bibbo (Aditi Rao Hydari) and Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal Mehta).

Over the course of its eight, nearly an hour long if not more, episodes, we discover their individual secrets and skeletons in the closet and the hornet's nest it stirs on the arrival of a vindictive neighbour and rival courtesan Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha) in the next door Khwabgah.

As I am not at liberty to share the history of betrayal at Shahi Mahal, let's just say blood is not always thicker than water.

Between Mallika and Fareedan vying for one-upmanship, fuelled by the mischief of Heeramandi's queer pimp Ustaadaji (Indresh Mallik) and desires of British officers ranging from lustful (Mark Bennington) to egotistical (Jason Shah), there's Lajjo's romantic woes, Bibbo's clandestine pursuits, Waheeda's grudges running as deep as her scar and a poetically-inclined Alamzeb's love at first sight feelings for a phoren-returned nawab, Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha) creating a bulk of the plot.

Tajdar, a bit like 1942: Love Story's privileged Naren and shayari-loving, kotha-hating Alamzeb's soulless romance, conveyed in Sharmin and Taha’s deadpan expressions, neither has the charm nor zeal of old-fashioned courtship.

Watching two people, completely out of their depth, trying to be all dainty and demure is akin to parody.

As Alamzeb's girl Friday punished for her superior talent and looks, Shruti Sharma's Saima fares a lot better.

It's wonderful to see the always genuine, graceful Farida Jalal after a long time in a substantial role and Anju Mahendru in a tiny but terrific cameo.

As always the Britishers are one-note, irredeemable boors lacking in nuance and reason.

Truth be told, the men in Heeramandi make for a rather sterile presence.

Bhansali's aiming for the snobbish nawab vibe of D K Sapru, Kamal Kapoor and Rehman but his curious pick of actors -- Fardeen Khan, Shekhar Suman and his son Adhyayan -- only adds to their fancy dress impression.

As for Heeramandi's real diamonds, Richa Chaddha doesn't have a lengthy role but makes the most of her histrionic, hysterical. vigour in ways that go well with Bhansali's brand of exaggeration.

Adding 'char chand' to the proceedings Aditi Rao Hydari's gossamer beauty is tailor made for Heeramandi's ornamental prowess. But it's her warmth around the ladies that gives it purpose too.

Sanjeeda Shaikh's Waheeda is a picture of torment, temper and cunning. The actress nimbly imposes her bitterness and frailty even when her character cannot.

Manisha Koirala is a revelation in her mean, mesmerising, avatar. She can be a controlling witch in the finest attire one minute, high as a kite lamenting about tawaif ki mohabbat in another, a force of nature coming to her sisterhood's rescue in still others. Likened to Meena Kumari for her fey face and melancholic allure in her heydays, Bhansali reveals the volatility Manisha is capable of as Mallikajaan.

There's a coldness to her soft voice, the fierceness of grazing steel. I had to hear her regular voice in an interview just to make sure if that's her talking. I still don't know.

But that's Sonakshi Sinha alright, with all her spitfire threats, roguish twinkle and bombastic skin. Bhansali gives her Fareedan a lot of heavy lifting to do and the lady does not disappoint.

Heeramandi's peak entertainment lies in Mallika and Fareedan's feud as the twain engage in a wicked game of thrones until things get disturbingly dark.

While Mallika's reigning 'huzoor' emerges most complex with her curious contradictions alternating between an unexpected ally and sozzled vixen, Fareedan's overnight change of heart is difficult to stomach.

Too many Heeramandi episodes are spent in world building and staging, resulting in the script taking its sweet time to arrive at its azaadi goals.

When Heeramandi's freedom fight is, finally, in full swing, Shahi Mahal's participation doesn't hit the dramatic high it ought to no matter how euphonious their appeals for azaadi sound.

Pity considering the punch in Mallikajaan's proclamation, 'tawaif rukhsat nahi azad hoti hai.'

There's a lilting ring to its Urdu-Punjabi heavy dialogues (by Divya Nidhi, Vibhu Puri) that speak, sing and sigh at once -- 'aurat ke asli dushman toh uske khwab hote hain.'

Bhansali, at the helm of direction, music, editing and lyrics of the Web series based on Moin Baig's original concept -- sharing screenplay credit with Vibhu Puri -- fulfills the visual expectations from a show of this scale and stature even if the familiarity of his earlier works makes it a tad hard to notice the novelty.

Though rich in classical verve and spirited penmanship, which includes the great Amir Khusro's Sakal Ban, a lot of the soundtrack carries echoes of his previous compositions. Ditto for the sets, costumes and choreography.

Beautiful as it is, Heeramandi cannot shrug off its sense of repetition and VFX overkill.

The show is a lot more fascinating when glancing through courtesan customs and culture.

The practise of her holding on to her personal patron addressed as 'saheb', Mallikajaan conducting classes in folding and offering paan, the courtesy and hierarchy influencing a tawaif's first and final performance, the refined tone of rampant discrimination towards the handmaidens and trans community.

Few Hindi films focus purely on the 'now known as Pakistan' bits of India's heritage and history.

Fleeting mentions of Delhi, Agra and Bombay aside, it's noteworthy how the glory days of Heeramandi, Lahore's largest red light district, form the driving force of its storytelling. And even more significantly -- desh bhakti.

Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar streams on Netflix.

Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar Review Rediff Rating: