‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’ series review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s dazzling soap opera

Heeramandi thrives on opulent otherworldliness from beginning to end. It’s as though Sanjay Leela Bhansali, directing his first streaming series, is all the more insistent we miss the big screen. In Lahore, a courtesan, Mallikajaan, crestfallen and cornered by fate, weeps before a fireplace, tossing pieces of precious jewellery into the sickly flames. The entire mansion is wreathed in ghostly shadows. When a voice calls out and a curtain is parted, we catch sight of the haveli across, its indoors abuzz and aglow with revelry and laughter. It is a bewitching moment in the series, conveying more through its interplay of light and dark than any plot turn or poetic phrase.

There is a lot of poetry in Heermandi. As always — and certainly encouraged by the setting and time period, pre-Independence India — Bhansali telegraphs his adulation for the Sufi and Urdu greats. The song that announces the arrival of spring, ‘Sakal Ban,’ flows from an Amir Khusrow poem, and there are mentions of Ghalib, Mir, Zafar and Niyazi. One of the principal characters, Alamzeb (Sharmin Sehgal), is an aspiring poetess, much like Rekha in Umrao Jaan (1981). There are clusters of conversation virtually indistinguishable from verse. “I will serve you couplets for breakfast and poems for lunch,” Alamzeb forewarns her betrothed. She might as well be addressing the viewer.

Alamzeb is the daughter of Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala), madam of Shahi Mahal, an elite brothel in the pleasure district of Lahore, Heera Mandi. Mallikajaan has another daughter, Bibbo (Aditi Rao Hydari), an acclaimed songstress cum revolutionary spy. It’s the 1940s, with resistance against the Raj gaining strength. The unctuous nawabs serve their foreign overlords for titles and protection. But it’s the courtesans who really call the tunes, shielding their patron’s secrets and, on occasion, leading them to ruin.

(L to R) Manisha Koirala as Mallikajaan, Jayati Bhatia in ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar.’

(L to R) Manisha Koirala as Mallikajaan, Jayati Bhatia in ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar.’
| Photo Credit:
Megha Chattani/Netflix

A set of dramatic flashbacks sets the series in motion. Mallikajaan, it transpires, has secrets of her own — a ghastly crime in her past, buried and hushed with the aid of the debauched nawab Zulfikar (Shekhar Suman). Once unearthed, it touches off a power struggle between her and Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha), a rival courtesan who embeds herself in Heera Mandi and sets about ruffling old and new feathers.

The plot turns on Fareedan’s elaborate schemes for revenge, an awkwardly burgeoning romance — between Alamzeb and a rebellious young nawab, Tajdar (Taaha Shah) — and the agitation of the revolutionaries. The evil police superintendent, Cartwright (Jason Shah), hovers around, digging for skeletons. Bhansali and his writers take time bringing the multiple strands together. Despite the immaculate sights and sounds on offer, it becomes a long wait. It doesn’t help that the thrilling political backdrop of the era is painted in broad strokes (there is no mention of the Muslim League and the demand for a separate Pakistan state).

Heermandi: The Diamond Bazaar (Hindi)

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Cast: Manisha Koirala, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sonakshi Sinha, Sharmin Segal, Taaha Shah, Fardeen Khan

Episodes: 8

Run-time: 45-65 minutes

Storyline: The intrigues and power struggles of courtesans in revolutionary-era India

Heera Mandi, a real neighbourhood in Lahore, was established in Mughal times, with its courtesans amassing considerable wealth and influence down the ages. There is a fascinating history of tawaifs contributing to the freedom struggle (Bibbo’s character, for instance, appears modelled on Azizun Bai, a Kanpur courtesan who fought against the British during the 1857 revolt). Yet, in calling our attention to these unsung heroes, Bhansali and his writers tend to go emotionally overboard, drawing well-meaning yet awkward parallels between the characters and India under British rule. Mallikajaan is taunted by Zulfikar for practising ‘divide and rule’. We are like birds in a gilded cage, Bibbo says, much like India — a golden bird in an imperial cage. In a surreal sequence, a funeral meeting transforms into an impromptu freedom song, atawaif’s emancipation via death likened to a nation gaining ‘azaadi’.

In Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), the eponymous heroine played by Alia Bhatt advocated for the dignity of sex workers in ‘60s Mumbai. The dancers and singers in Heeramandi are frequently accused of sex work — the show, gracefully, doesn’t elide this aspect of courtesan life. Mallikajaan runs a tight ship but stands up for her own in public. In court, she defends the high social status — as centres of refinement and culture — that the kothas enjoyed. Even Fareedan, at the peak of her villainy, responds with solidarity and concern for her peers.

Filmed on a massive budget, Heeramandi is stunning to behold. For its lighting tricks and sheer compositional wizardry, the series is a winner (the four cinematographers are Sudeep Chatterjee, Mahesh Limaye, Huenstang Mohapatra, and Ragul Dharuman). Bhansali also pays heart-on-sleeve tributes to classics like Mughal-E-Azam and Pakeezah — the pirouetting dancers on rooftops could belong in Kamal Amrohi’s film — and there is a passing nod to KL Saigal, who played the first Hindi Devdas onscreen, a legacy continued by Dilip Kumar and later Shah Rukh Khan in Bhansali’s own 2002 film.

Sharmin Segal as Alam, Taha Shah Badussha as Tajdar in ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’

Sharmin Segal as Alam, Taha Shah Badussha as Tajdar in ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’
| Photo Credit:
Shamim Ansari/Netflix

Fardeen Khan exudes kohl-eyed menace as the nawab Wali Mohammed, while Koirala surrenders body and soul to Mallikajaan, teasing scraps of humanity from an overblown part. Nivedita Bhargava and Jayati Bhatia are delightful as a pair of gabby attendants, Satto and Phatto. Richa Chadha, working her high and hearty laughter, gets too short-lived a role. The series could have stuck with seasoned performers like Chadha and Sanjeeda Sheikh; instead, it’s the central lovers, flatly played by Segal and Shah, who occupy a bulk of the runtime. For its closing episodes, Heermandi enters a realm of gothic abstraction that is Bhansali’s mark. In the fiery final scene, the women of Heera Mandi descend upon the streets, a sea of torch-bearing protesters storming a fort. It’s Bhansali boldly reversing the end of Padmaavat (2018), where hordes of ghoonghat-clad women strode into a pit of fire, singing not of freedom.

Heeramandi is currently streaming on Netflix

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