Heeramandi is a film that thrives off opulent, otherworldly ambiance. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s first streaming series is so insistent that we don’t miss the big screens. Mallikajaan is a Lahore courtesan who cornered and crestfallen by her fate, throws pieces of jewelry in the smoky fire. All of the mansion’s rooms are engulfed in ghostly shades. The Haveli is aglow and alive with laughter and revelry when a voice announces, and the curtain opens. The interplay between light and darkness is more powerful than any poetic expression or plot twist.

Heermandi is full of poetry. Bhansali, as always, and encouraged no doubt by the time and place of pre-Independence India, telegraphs adulation towards the Sufi or Urdu greats. Sakal Ban, the song that heralds spring’s arrival, is based on a poem by Amir Khusrow and includes Ghalib and Mir as well as Zafar and Niyazi. Alamzeb, played by Sharmin Sehgal, is a young poetess from Umrao Jaan who aspires to be like Rekha. Conversational clusters are almost indistinguishable. Alamzeb warns her future wife, “I’ll serve you poems and couplets at lunch.” It’s as if she were addressing the audience.


Alamzeb, Mallikajaan’s daughter, is madam at Shahi Mahal in Lahore’s Heera Mandi, a prestigious brothel. Mallikajaan also has Bibbo, an acclaimed singer/spy who is a revolutionary. The 1940s are a time when resistance to the Raj is growing. For titles and protection, the unctuous Nawabs are loyal to their foreign masters. The courtesans are the ones who make the music, protect their clients’ secrets, and sometimes lead them to ruin.

The show starts out with a sequence of intense flashbacks. It turns out that Mallikajaan has her own dark secrets as well, including a horrific murder that she committed in the past and had nawab Zulfikar (Shekhar Suman) help her bury and keep quiet about. Fareedan, played by Sonakshi Sinha, is a competing courtesan who implants herself in Heera Mandi after its discovery and begins to ruffle both old and new feathers, setting in motion a power struggle between her and Fareedan.

Elements central to the story include Fareedan’s intricate plans for vengeance, the revolutionaries’ incitement, and the uncomfortably developing relationship between Alamzeb and Tajdar, a defiant young nawab played by Taaha Shah. Cartwright, played by Jason Shah, the villainous police superintendent, lurks around, looking for bones to pick. It takes Bhansali and his scribes a while to tie all the loose ends together. It turns into a lengthy wait despite the spotless visuals and audio. The analysis fails to explore the specifics of the exciting political background of the time, only providing general terms. This includes neglecting the Muslim League and the movement for a separate Pakistan state.

Heeramandi is an actual neighborhood in Lahore that has been there since Mughal times, and the courtesans that lived there have become quite wealthy and powerful. Bibbo seems to have been inspired by Azizun Bai, a Kanpur pro**tute who battled the British during the 1857 insurrection; there is an interesting history of tawaifs who participated in the liberation movement. Although Bhansali and his writers want to bring attention to these unsung heroes, they sometimes cross the line into sentimentality by making inappropriate but well-intentioned comparisons between the individuals and India under British rule. As a result of Mallikajaan’s alleged “divide and rule” tactics, Zulfikar mocks him. According to Bibbo, we are like birds in a cage made of gold, much as India is. With atawaif’s death serving as a metaphor for a nation’s azaadi, a funeral gathering becomes an impromptu liberation hymn in a strange scene.

The titular character in Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), portrayed by Alia Bhatt, fought for the respect of sex workers in Mumbai during the 1960s. Heeramandi gently addresses the common accusation that the dancers and singers engage in sex work. Although she keeps a tight ship running, Mallikajaan publicly defends her own. She defends the kothas’ illustrious social position in court, arguing that they were cultural and social epicentres. Despite her villainy, Fareedan still shows care for her classmates and replies with unity.

Gorgeous to look at, Heeramandi was shot on a huge budget. The series is a triumph in terms of lighting tactics and pure compositional skill. The four cinematographers involved are Ragul Dharuman, Huenstang Mohapatra, Mahesh Limaye, and Sudeep Chatterjee. The filmmakers pirouette dancers on rooftops, perhaps referencing Kamal Amrohi’s film. Bhansali also sneaks a nod to KL Saigal, the first Hindi Devdas onscreen. Dilip Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan take on the role again in Bhansali’s 2002 film. Other classics like Mughal-E-Azam and Pakeezah receive loving references as well.

Fardeen Khan
Fardeen Khan

While Fardeen Khan’s kohl-eyed villainy as nawab Wali Mohammed is on full display, Koirala gives herself over to Mallikajaan, revealing just a hint of compassion in an overdone role. The two feisty housekeepers, Satto and Phatto, played by Nivedita Bhargava and Jayati Bhatia, are hilarious. This is much too brief an opportunity for Richa Chadha to showcase her high and enthusiastic laughing. The series missed an opportunity to include veteran actors like Sanjeeda Sheikh and Chadha by focusing on the core lovers, Segal and Shah, who are underdeveloped. The last episodes of Heermandi showcase Bhansali’s signature gothic abstraction. A horde of demonstrators carrying torches storms a fort in the blazing last scene, which features the ladies of Heera Mandi. It’s Bhansali fearlessly turning around the plot of Padmaavat (2018), whereby masses of women wearing ghoonghats marched into a fiery pit, refraining from chanting songs of freedom.

Heeramandi is currently streaming on Netflix

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