'Heeramandi' review: Bhansali and Koirala create a spectacular series about love, betrayal, survival and triumph

Heeramandi is Bhansali's powerful, operatic, ode to feminine power


Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one of India’s finest, most original filmmakers. Though he has made just 10 films in about 26 years, with each one he has created his own unique, signature style of storytelling. 

Most SLB films have a grand scale and are set in unbelievably beautiful, perfect worlds. But he doesn’t hark back to an opulent past just to give his films an opulent, period look. He travels back in time to give his characters an appropriate setting to stage their intense, epic sagas of love, desires, sacrifice and tragedy— an otherworldly setting for their otherworldly passions and actions.

But, in the last few years— specifically in his three operatic romances starring Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone — SLB had become a slave to wowing the audience with excessive beauty and synchronised perfection at the expense of human drama. 

He had also begun to lean right, creating characters only to reinforce biases and cliches, like his Alauddin Khalji, the meat-chomping poster boy of Love Jihad in the 2018 film, Padmaavat, where Bhansali also fetishised jauhar (mass suicide of women to protect their honour).  

Thankfully, he began course correction with 2022’s Gangubai Kathiawad, and now with Heeramandi, he has completely, totally redeemed himself. 

Heeramandi, an eight-episode Urdu-speaking series that is set in the 1940s in the walled city of Lahore, recreates a real world to tell a fictional story. It’s a world where the power of nawabs is on the wane and the freedom movement is becoming restless and aggressive.

Against this backdrop is the pleasure district of Heeramandi and at its centre are the series' all-female protagonists — tawaifs (courtesans) — who live in Shahi Mahal, the main brothel.

Bhansali pulls us into Heeramani with the seductive charm of low-hanging chandeliers, diamond and pearl jhoomars, gorgeous women in stunning silk, velvet and muslin ensembles. But we stay mesmerised and invested in this world because of the compelling stories of beautifully written and acted characters who chase their desires with hubris, rage, ego clashes, acts of betrayal and revenge.

Heeramandi has an excellent ensemble of actors, but its throbbing, aching heart is Manisha Koirala whose performance as Mallikajaan, the hard-nosed, haughty matriarch of Shahi Mahal, the main brothel, is powerful and sublime. With roses tucked in her saree blouse, she holds this world together, and elevates the series with her performance.

Her range here is incredible as she goes, often in the same episode, from bedraggled to a bitch, from sexy to scary, dialling the temperature of scenes up and down at will.

Bhansali and Koirala, who have reunited after his 1996 directorial debut Khamoshi: The Musical, together create one of the most spectacular series that ends on an intensely poignant and subversive note.

Heeramandi’s last episode has a sequence where all the courtesans march, singing a slightly altered version of the anti-CAA anthem — from the original 'Hum Dekhenge', it has lyricist AM Turaz's 'Humein Dekhni Hai Azaadi'. This scene invokes the feminine and moral power of Shaheen Bagh and the song, composed by Bhansali, while honouring the original, will reverberate and energise many future protests that are sure to come. 

Heeramandi is, at its essence, a story of women's determination to not just survive, but thrive. It is beautifully written, cleverly shot, has sharp dialogue and stunning performances. 

It is also Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s most political, significant creation to date.

Heeramandi opens in 1920s with young tawaif, Mallikajaan, who has just given birth to an illegitimate son. Rehana (Sonakshi Sinha), who runs Shahi Mahal, the main brothel, sells him off, setting off a chain of events that involves a murder and a bereaved daughter who is sold off too.

With an eyewitness who is scarred for life, the series moves forward to mid-1940s. Now, Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) is in charge of Shahi Mahal and a bevy of young tawaifs -- Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari), Lajjo (Richa Chaddha), Waheeda (Sanjeeda Shaikh). There's also Mallikajaan's two attendants, Satto and Phatto, maid Saina, tonga-driver Iqbal, Ustadji (Indresh Malik) who carries tales and helps negotiate deals, two wily British officers, and many wimpish nawabs.

Mallikajaan presides over the lives and fortunes of the tawaifs while admiring her jewellery, taking drags from a hookah and doling out random acts of cruelty. 

Each tawaif has a patron nawab sahab who provides for her in return for her exclusive attention and time. But insecurity forces each tawaif to seek more power and patrons, and all relations, whether personal or professional, all feelings of love, whether real or feigned, become just an asset to be spent in exchange for something better. 

The courtesans wear their egos regally, as an armour to protect their fragile honour and independence, hiding their vulnerability under a display of their fortune and beauty.

Lajjo, who is in love, breaks this power posturing with a show of vulnerability and true passion. But for women of Heeramandi, relationships work only as long as they are pandering to the desires of men. The moment the tawaifs display their real feelings, a desire for another life, they are discarded brutally, humiliated and violated.

In Shahi Mahal there's also Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal), Mallikajaan’s daughter, who wants to be a shayar, but Mallikajaan is planning her nath uttarai (a ceremonious auction to the highest bidder).

Meanwhile, in a more respectable part of town, Tajdar (Taha Shah), the son of nawab Ashfaq Baloch (Ujjwal Chopra), has returned from Oxford. In the midst of rising protests for azaadi and clashes with cops, Alamzeb and Tajzar lock each other in their gaze. 

The British sarkar, portrayed here by two officers, Cartwright (Jason Shah) and Henderson (Mark Bennington), sometimes become pawns in the games that tawaifs play, but mostly they remain suspicious of all Indians and loyal to the Crown.

Disruption arrives in Heeramandi the shape of Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha, in a double role), who carries a secret and a grudge. She takes residence in a mansion across Shahi Mahal and declares war on Mallikajaan.

Ustadji, smelling opportunity, begins going to and fro, irritating egos, teasing insecurities, fanning tempers and setting off battles. 

Partly shot in Lucknow, Bhansali's Heeramandi, based on a story by Moin Beg, recreates a world of nawabs, Lahori splendour and nautch girls accessorised with seductive bits and baubles, by using Urdu language and tehzeeb. 

That gentle elegance and etiquette intrinsic to Urdu are woven in Heeramandi’s screenplay and dialogue. It's a world where shayars (poets) don’t simply begin reciting their kalam (poem), but seek permission with, “Arz kiya hai…" and begin only when they hear an enthusiastic "Irshaad".

Heeramandi has several strands and tangents. Of these the weakest one is about the scar-carrying Waheeda seeking revenge. The freedom fighters' track too feels stilted in the beginning and takes its time to gather some heft and meaning. 

But the series’ weakest link is Sharmin Segal Mehta who plays Alamzeb, the innocent pawn of her mother and a nawab’s love interest. She has the charm of youth, but meagre acting talent. 

Daughter of Bhansali's sister, Mehta goes through the series with one expression, and is helped throughout with a soft glow, gentle breeze and music insinuating some feeling and chemistry between her and Tajdar.

The film's music is composed by Bhansali himself, and the dialogue— by Divya Nidhi and Vibhu Puri—are sharp, with several stunning one-liners. The film's production design, by Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Roy, and cinematography, led by Sudeep Chatterjee, are all in sync to create this world.

For all of this, Heeramandi draws a lot of inspiration from Pakeezah, a little bit from Umrao Jaan and Mandi as well. Several scenes, sets, clothes, even camera movement and dances are like a homage to Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 epic starring Meena Kumari.

Heeramandi has a very talented cast of actors, but none of its female actresses is a great dancer. In fact, they can all be listed in ascending order of how stiff and bad they are.  

The dances in the series are choreographed keeping that in mind. So every mujra has a mood and tells a story with swirling lehngas and acts of seduction or desperation.   

Richa Chaddha has a brief role, but is very good. Sonakshi Sinha and Aditi Rao Hydari have substantial roles and sparkle in several scenes, bringing alive their characters every time they grab hold of an opportunity to get what they want.

Apart from Fardeen Khan, who mostly wore a constipated look and too much kajal, all the men play their part well. Shekhar Suman was good, and Indresh Malik, who plays Ustaadji, is creepy and slimy. Jason Shah and Mark Bennington, who play the two British officers, are excellent.

Manisha Koirala — who reportedly took diction classes for this role — delivers her Urdu dialogue perfectly and with chutzpah. All her lines land as she intends them to— sometimes like sharp whiplashes, sometimes like haunting one-line life lessons. She changes the mood of a scene sometimes without even uttering a word. 

Within her she carries the ethos of Heeramandi—a bazaar of pleasure where sex is the least interesting item on sale, and where surface beauty, nazakat (delicate affectations) hide a pragmatic business sense. 

Koirala carries many shades of black, white and grey within her. She is a victim and a vicious, heartless assailant. She derives special, sadistic delight in humiliating others, casually jeopardises love, extracts a pound of flesh for every favour, and even acts of basic decency carry a heavy price tag.

Devious, evil and so real, she is the heart and soul of the series. This year, all awards for best performance, female, in series are going to her. 

Binge-watch Heeramandi for her and for Bhansali's powerful, operatic, ode to feminine power. It doesn’t get better than this.

Series: Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar

Directed by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Cast: Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sharmin Segal Mehta, Richa Chaddha, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Farida Jalal, Indresh Malik, Shekhar Suman, Fardeen Khan, Taha Shah, Adhyayan Suman, Ujjwal Chopra, Mark Bennington, Jason Shah, Jayati Bhatia, Nivedita Bhargawa

Rating: 4/5

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