Heeramandi is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Biggest Project” Yet

A lot of hopes are pinned on the filmmaker’s eight-part Netflix series
Heeramandi is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Biggest Project” Yet
Sanjay Leela Bhansali

At a recent Netflix event, filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali chatted with Netflix’s chief executive officer Ted Sarandos and actor Mini Mathur about Heeramandi, an eight-part series set in a world where "courtesans were queens". Bhansali’s small-screen debut is a big deal, with Aditi Rao Hydari, Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha and Richa Chadha in the cast. The director said the series is his tribute to vintage masterpieces like Pakeezah (1972), Mother India (1957) and Mughal-E-Azam (1960). Netflix India will be hoping the show is a breakout, global hit that will do for its profile what Squid Games did for its Korean content. Here’s what Bhansali shared at the event about Heeramandi.     

“Heeramandi is my Biggest Project”

Portraying grandiosity on screen comes naturally to Bhansali. The shift from the big screen — backed by Netflix — encouraged his affinity for staging spectacles. Bhansali said Heeramandi is his biggest project in terms of scale. While “there is no holding back or trying to think differently for the OTT platform,” the process behind creating the eight-episode series was “demanding and difficult”. It helped sharpen the filmmaker’s narrative skills and is “special” because he has surprised himself with how he made it. At one point in the conversation, he also said that to his mind, anguish is a catalyst for creation. “You are just born in a dark space and you keep finding things out of it.”

“They’re Not Perfect” 

Bhansali said his cast is not “perfect” for the characters — but that’s what made it exciting. Their exploration and interpretation of the characters were unique to them. Aside from his longstanding desire to work with these actors, the reason he cast them was an intuitive feeling that discovering how they’d perform these roles would be a special experience. “They are wonderful talent. You throw an ace at them, they’ll throw two back at you,” he said. 


“You Never Know the Audience”

When asked how he interpreted what an audience desires, Bhansali said that any filmmaker who believes he knows his audience is “living in a fool’s paradise”. He said, “Mai baap hai audience. The audience is everything to us” and emphasised the importance of a filmmaker having an understanding of himself. He also acknowledged that the post-pandemic world is different and the audience expects more from the media they are consuming. “The filmmaker is now on high alert, he’s on guard,” he said. To forge ahead fearlessly is key. “The filmmaker has to believe, he has to cause the change. Let the audience not change you,” he said. 

“I Find Research Very Boring” 

Speaking about making a historical film, Bhansali said, “in our country, you have to be very careful.” Given he’s made Bajirao Mastani (2015), Padmaavat (2018), and Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) and was one of the co-writers of 1942: A Love Story (1994), Bhansali should know. He said that while he does pay attention to facts, his films are shaped by his imagination, and not history. They aren’t documentaries and as far as he’s concerned, he’s under no obligation to be accurate. The first step for Bhansali is composing the music and once that falls into place, the rest unfolds. “If anything I need to go to inspiration for, (it) is music,” Bhansali said, adding that his aim is to allow viewers to access a time they haven’t witnessed through his films, while keeping it relatable because of his modern approach. “The audience has to connect to it,” he said. 

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