Introducing Manisha Koirala as Mallikajaan, of Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar

Manisha Koirala plays the godmother-like figure who rules over the courtesans of Heeramandi in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s debut streaming series.
Manisha Koirala The Floating Woman of Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar
Manisha Koirala The Floating Woman of Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar

The maven of tawaifs, the huzoor of Shahi Mahal, the queen of Lahore’s Heeramandi — Mallikajaan, played by Manisha Koirala, is all these things. In the tradition of Sanjay Leela Bhansali heroines, she’s also an ethereal “floating woman”, as cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee put it. For her intro scene in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, Bhansali’s debut streaming series, Mallikajaan is seen gliding through the baroque corridors of Shahi Mahal. The story behind this scene is a charming mix of spur-of-the-moment inspiration and meticulous planning.

When we first meet Mallikajaan, she’s seen lying in her room, with attendants applying intricate mehndi designs on her. She gets up when she learns a British official has requested an audience with her, and makes her way to have this meeting. In an interview with Film Companion, Koirala spoke about how she spent hours in one position for that scene. “That first scene where I'm lying down and people are putting mehendi on my arms and legs — for seven hours I was lying like that and I didn't move,” said Koirala. Heeramandi is the second time Koirala is working with Bhansali. She played the protagonist in Bhansali’s debut film, Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), which Koirala said is her favourite film. 

Yet the mehendi was an afterthought. Bhansali wanted Koirala to not so much walk through the corridor as glide over it. He wanted to give the effect of Mallikajaan being mid-flight and to that end, he wanted her outfit to flare around her like wings. But what would justify Mallikajaan’s entourage holding the skirt of her kurta aloft to achieve that effect? The practical answer was mehendi — it was the perfect excuse to strike that pose. Then came the challenge of shooting this scene, which meant ensuring every element aligns, from the elaborate mehndi to the mirrors in the corridor that multiply the depth of the frame and strategic camera placement. Chatterjee said he opted for an elevated perspective to capture not only the opulence of Shahi Mahal, but also establish Mallikajaan’s regality. 

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