Peek into Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar with its Star Cast
Peek into Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar with its Star Cast

Peek into Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar with its Star Cast

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s first show is believed to be the most costly Indian streaming production to date. Here’s what Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Richa Chadha, Aditi Rao Hydari and others said about working on this project.

Early on in director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, the reigning queen of the courtesans Mallikajaan defines the tawaif for a visitor: “Hum chand hain, joh dikhta toh hai khidki se magar kabhi kisi ke baramde mein utarta nahi hai. Hum tawaif hai. Raniyan hai Lahore ki (We’re like the moon — you can see it from your window, but don’t hope for it to descend upon your balcony. We’re courtesans. We’re the queens of Lahore).” Holding court as Mallikajaan is Manisha Koirala. The other names sharing screen with her are equally stellar: Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha, Taha Shah Badussha, Fardeen Khan, Shekhar Suman and even Bollywood’s favourite nani Farida Jalal. Also playing key roles are Sharmin Segal and Sanjeeda Sheikh. The show will be available on Netflix from May 1 onwards. 

Reportedly made on a budget of Rs. 200 crore, word on the street is that Heeramandi is the most expensive Indian production for a streaming show. Set in Lahore in the 1920s, the show follows a constellation of courtesans and the men who hover around them. Koirala, Sinha, Hydari, Chadha, Sheikh and Segal all play tawaifs who are both revered for their beauty and sophistication, while simultaneously being disrespected for being women of dubious virtues. These are women who are victimised, but they refuse to succumb to victimhood. Instead, they choose to establish their individuality and rebel in their own distinctive ways. Badussha, Khan and Suman are cast as aristocrats, who were traditionally patrons of courtesans. 

Ahead of Heeramandi’s release, the cast spoke with Film Companion about how they prepared for their characters and their experiences of working with Bhansali on this project. Here are edited excerpts from Film Companion’s conversation with the cast of Heeramandi:

Sharmin Segal as Alamzeb in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar on Netflix
Sharmin Segal as Alamzeb in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar on Netflix

FC: How did you all prepare for your characters? What was your process?

Sharmin Segal: Sanjay (Bhansali) sir told me at one point, “Use your throat and your eyes more.” My eyes must have lost weight while shooting Heeramandi because I was doing eye-gym every day for 15 hours — emoting through my eyes, expressing through my eyes and timing my emotions through my eyes. I did watch Pakeezah (1972), I watched Umrao Jaan (1981), and Mughal-E-Azam (1960) — these period movies, but I think I focused more on what I can bring to the table and worked on those strengths rather than try and do something that I might actually not be able to execute.

Sanjeeda Sheikh:  I'm more instinctive about how I take my character. Everything is done on set for me. Of course, then you have Sanjay sir who was guiding us in the whole process.

Manisha Koirala: I watched Peaky Blinders to somehow try to get that still gaze…

Richa Chadha: How funny that a period show in another continent could help you get into that!

Manisha Koirala: You know, I was just trying to see if there's something that I could take on. And Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). I watched a bit of that. Her eyes, she uses them very well. 

Richa Chadha: I wanted to tell you that I loved the way you have used your eyes, Manisha ma’am. Whether it is the small nazar (look) in ‘Sakal Ban’ or the close-ups where you are staring at the diamond but talking about Lajjo. 

Sharmin Segal: Sanjay sir does the Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada quite often. The pout-and-dismiss eyes (laughs).

Manisha Koirala: There were a few references that we all use for our homework. When you know that you're playing this sort of a cold-blooded character. You probably pick on one or two things and you stay in character. A few days or a week before shooting, one would definitely get into the zone, try to rehearse. I would disconnect from the rest of the people on the set. I would try not to faff around and be in the space as much as I could and be in the van. The character lingered on with me even after I left the set.

Fardeen Khan, Sonakshi Sinha and Aditi Rao Hydari in Heeramandi on Netflix
Fardeen Khan, Sonakshi Sinha and Aditi Rao Hydari in Heeramandi on Netflix

FC: Did you have fun shooting this? Because Meryl Streep famously did not have fun shooting The Devil Wears Prada, for which she did what you were describing.

Manisha Koirala: You know you have to do that. See the thing is, I believe in that [process] because I have done like a zillion movies and I am so conscious of not repeating myself. We are human beings, mera smile ek jaisa hi hoga (the way I smile will be the same). I have to consciously not do what I've done in my previous movies. I have to bring in the method. I have to watch myself and not be in a circle of repertoire, otherwise it will be the same kind of crying and same kind of laughing — the whole thing had to be different for me.

Richa Chadha: I had a Lajjo playlist. I think it's still on my phone. It had Meena Kumariji's poetry, the entire album of Pakeezah and Mughal-E-Azam. I thought that it was essential to do that because you're working on a period piece. Our lives are so fast. We have so many gadgets around us and we are always tuned into something 24/7. It would really help me slow down. I even made an oud perfume for this character — very musky, strong, but still sweet. It helped me totally get into her mind space. 

Sonakshi Sinha: Sanjay sir was enough motivation to get into character and get into the zone. When you go on that set, it's his vision that you've been given the responsibility to carry out. That in itself is enough of a motivator. … I love, love, love to just sit and hear my directors talk about what they are doing, what their vision is, how they have seen this character. I used to talk to Sanjay sir a lot. He used to just talk about Fareedan and that in itself used to be like watching a movie about this character.

Aditi Rao Hydari:  Like Sona (Sinha) said, the only thing I know, and I'm really happy to do and I want to do, is to surrender completely, be a sponge and listen and be present. He [Bhansali] really lays it out for you. It's a very, very immersive world that he creates for you. When you're there, you've switched on and when you're not, you've switched off. A little personal thing I also do is fragrance, different associations with different characters— 

FC: Vidya Balan also does it for all her characters. 

Aditi Rao Hydari: Really? Wow, I do that too. It really helps me get into the mood. Sanjay sir also had a lot of music playing on set because that’s another thing that is very evocative for me. He does that for you, he creates an ambience. You just have to surrender. It is so beautiful to be able to surrender like that. It's a very nice, childlike feeling for me. 

Taha Shah Badussha:  This is something that I do too, as far as the fragrance is concerned. But that's mostly to get me back into the character and not build the character up. Let's say you take a gap for like 15 days and you come back on set, then when you use that perfume, it gets you back into that scent of the character. Besides that, Sanjay sir said “You should watch a lot of Balraj Sahni.” Also, last year they were showing Dilip Kumar saab’s movies in PVR. Sanjay sir got me to go watch them — and actually Saira Banu ma'am was there as well. We were watching all his movies. It was quite incredible. 

Fardeen Khan: You start off with the humble ambition of doing no harm to the time period. You just work on the basics …  Of course, Mr Bhansali has his vision and his contribution is immense. Just getting the look right is more than half the battle won. The costumes, the accessories and all of that just instantly takes you back and you just feel you're there. Not to mention the sets and the detailing and all of that, it just helps. You just go back and you automatically sit in a certain way and the furniture adds to your body language and the way they're authentically made, they just demand that you automatically fit into that zone. 

Sharmin Segal: Actually, I also had a playlist with Bad Bunny and Solomon. Because it makes me feel all these intense feelings. Of course I was listening to all the classics but anyway there's so much pressure to perform. And I'm sitting there in front of that mirror and I'm putting more pressure on myself to be able to emulate the greats, which honestly doesn't come naturally to me. Bad Bunny also evokes feelings in me. 

Sanjeeda Sheikh and Pratibha Ranta in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar on Netflix
Sanjeeda Sheikh and Pratibha Ranta in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar on Netflix

FC: Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a reputation for being a taskmaster. We heard from one of the crew members that almost 60 scenes were reshot?

Aditi Rao Hydari: I enjoy the challenge because he's also looking for that magic. … If he pushes us we blossom in that process and he wants us to blossom. Honestly, he’s the hardest on himself because he’s constantly trying to do something new. 

Sonakshi Sinha: It does get difficult sometimes, especially for me, because I'm a very spontaneous actor. My first couple of takes are the ones where I feel the most satisfied. After that, it just gets mechanical for me. Sanjay sir is the kind of person who is very intuitive. He understands what kind of actor you are, and he'll push you to that limit. There was a scene — when Malikajaan comes to Khwabgah during Fareedan’s debut — I did about 16 takes with him, and that's the highest number of takes I've ever done in my life. But he understands what works. He got that look in the 2nd take I think, and he kept trying to get me to do better than that. It’s what I love about him, that he knows how to push his actors.

Sharmin Segal:  I did about 48 takes of running from one side of Shahi Mahal to the other side of Shahi Mahal where Manisha ma'am was sitting and waiting for me. 

Manisha Koirala: My first few days on set were the most challenging for me because I wanted to figure out the “sur” (tone) of the character. We were shooting the scene with Gunther who comes with the gramophone. I had to give it some time. But it was a lot of fun.

Sharmin Segal: My younger sister Simran who is an AD [assistant director] on this came up to me and said, “I feel so bad for Manisha ma'am. Because for four hours she couldn't put her hands down or lift her legs because of the mehendi.” 

Manisha Koirala: Honestly, I didn't mind the hours. For that matter, that first scene where I'm lying down and people are putting mehandi on my arms and legs — for seven hours I was lying like that and I didn't move. But the excitement of doing it right was driving me so much that I didn't care and I didn't mind the hours. … That's an adrenaline rush of working with Sanjay.

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