Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar Review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali Wants to Dazzle You to Distraction

With a cast led by Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha and Aditi Rao Hydari, there is an abundance of beauty in Heeramandi, but is that enough? The show is streaming on Netflix.
Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar Review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali Wants to Dazzle You to Distraction

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Writers: Sanjay Leela Bhansali (based on original story by Moin Beg)

Cast: Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Farida Jalal, Richa Chadha, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Sharmin Segal Mehta, Taha Shah, Jason Shah, Shekhar Suman, Fardeen Khan, Indresh Malik

Number of episodes: 8

Available on: Netflix

Minutes into the first episode of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s debut streaming series Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, we get two beautiful scenes. From a vantage point that presents a panoramic view of this bustling neighbourhood of courtesans in pre-Independence Lahore, we’re shown a horse-drawn carriage making its way out of Heeramandi at dusk. Seated on the little ledge at the back of the carriage is a smiling young woman. She’s dressed in white, which makes her gleam like a beacon of unblemished purity while all around her mills a faceless crowd dressed in shades of black, indigo and greyish blue. Lamps and candles dot the scene, pinpricking the cool palette with their warmth.

Sometime later, this same carriage will return and the woman in white will be on that same seat. She’ll still be gleaming like a pearl, but this time, we see Heeramandi not in the bleak monochrome of before, when we saw it from the perspective of an insider, but from outside in. We see Heeramandi through a visitor’s eyes. The muted tones of the palatial buildings now have the glint of jewel-bright accents and darkness is filligreed with light and colour. Music breezes through the neighbourhood and the street-facing windows offer tantalising glimpses of opulent interiors and dancing women.

Here in the beautiful production design is the grandeur and majesty for which Bhansali is famous. Here is also the sophisticated cinematography that is able to turn an elaborate set into an intricate miniature that doesn’t feel awkwardly cramped when it’s made to fit the dimensions of the small screen. Nestled in these two shots is worldbuilding that establishes Heeramandi as a figment of Bhansali’s maximalist imagination, rather than as a place constrained by details like fact, logic and history. Look closely and you’ll find these details that convey both what the young woman stands for in the story of Heeramandi as well as the ambivalence with which the show imagines its courtesans. 

Unfortunately, in between these two shots (as well as before and after them) are scenes that want to be romantic but teeter towards cringe. Like when the same young woman gets up in the middle of the night, picks up a lamp, and walks into a pool — not to drown herself or cool down, but to look for a single, lost pearl (wouldn’t this have been easier to do during the day?), stepping in deeper and deeper, candle in hand (since she doesn’t have someone taking photos of the pretty play of light, is she hoping the candle will illuminate the pool floor?) until the candle in the lamp is submerged and the light goes out (because, well, physics). Reader, you’ll be happy to know she finds the pearl, which her mother swallows like a bitter pill after offering the young woman a pearl of wisdom in exchange for the real one. Does it make sense? Not really, but look at the opportunity for wordplay! Irshad!

Sonakshi Sinha in Heeramandi
Sonakshi Sinha in Heeramandi

Prestige Projects and “Mid TV”

It’s difficult to summarise the central plot of Heeramandi because the show takes more than five episodes to settle upon its focus. Bhansali has the credit of being one of the few directors in Indian cinema whose name works as an adjective. Utter it and immediately there are expectations of extravagant sets, opulent costumes, complex dance sequences, and history glamorised by fiction. These elements are all present in Heeramandi, along with little odes to Indian cinema, like a scene that tips its binoculars at Charulata (1964) and a dirge that recalls the legendary Nargis’s famous obituary for the original tragedy queen Meena Kumari, in which Nargis wrote “Meena Kumari ko maut mubarak ho (Congratulations Meena Kumari, upon your death)”. 

Despite all this, the show falls short, delivering a Bhansali creation that is clearly rooted in the director’s sensibility but is a mediocre example of his storytelling. In a recent article in The New York Times, chief TV critic James Poniewozik declared that the overload in content and the pressure to deliver numbers has resulted in streaming platforms producing “Mid TV”. “It’s what you get when you raise TV’s production values and lower its ambitions. It reminds you a little of something you once liked a lot,” wrote Poniewozik. He uses a phrase in his article that sums up Heeramandi perfectly: “It is prestige TV you can fold laundry to.” If you’re looking for a show to play in the background that you turn your attention to only sporadically, Heeramandi may well be ideal. It looks beautiful, has dramatic moments, and glitters with glamour. All it lacks is emotional complexity, narrative coherence, and a general sense of intelligence. Arguably, if we expect such qualities from what is rumoured to be the most expensive Indian production on OTT, we’d be justified.       

Heeramandi had the potential to be a complex story about identity, feminine ideals, changing social values, political oppression, and various kinds of resistance to authoritarianism. At the heart of this wannabe-period drama is a rivalry between two courtesans, the elder Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) and the newcomer Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha), who has a personal vendetta against Mallikajaan, but also wants to establish herself as a courtesan after having made her living as a sex worker. Parallel to this power tussle is the story of two sisters who yearn to have a life different from what Heeramandi allows them. Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) is one of the most prized courtesans and secretly works with an underground group of rebels who dream of overthrowing the colonial yoke. Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal Mehta) aspires to be a poet and dreads the prospect of debuting as a tawaif (courtesan) because the profession commands little respect in society. 

Another thread in Heeramandi is a taboo love story set against the backdrop of violent revolution, featuring as its hero the Oxford-returned Tajdar (Taha Shah) who sets himself two impossible tasks: Protesting the British rule despite being the son of a nawab (aristocrat) aligned with India’s colonisers; and making a moustache that looks like a miniature broom seem dashing. Scattered in the middle of all this are a vicious English police officer with a penchant for being shirtless, a gender-fluid and multitasking pimp who delights in watching the courtesans squabble, a love story between a maid and a driver, and the chatter of two serving women who appear to be the less witty, Punjabi aunties of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. 

Aditi Rao Hydari in Heeramandi
Aditi Rao Hydari in Heeramandi

Meandering through Heeramandi

Even though there is no shortage of incidents, sub-plots, revelations and twists, Heeramandi feels slow until its last three episodes, when it becomes disjoint, hurried and overcrowded. Until the sixth episode, the show leans heavily into manifesting moods rather than meaning, mostly thanks to the elaborate costumes and sets. Occasionally, there are diamond-bright dialogues like “Itna toh aurat ittar na lagaye jitna Angrez curfew lagate hain (a woman dabs herself with perfume less often than the British order curfews)”. Somehow, the same writers thought “Ab nanga naach (now dance naked)”, spoken in an indeterminate foreign accent, would evoke fear and dread rather than inappropriate giggles. They also thought it would be romantic to have Tajdar actually growl in response to Alamzeb murmuring a pun involving the word “sher” and drawing a contrast between poetry and a lion’s roar. If only someone in Heeramandi’s crew had pointed out that some things work best as clichés in a paperback romance. 

Barring a few select performances and moments, Heeramandi unfolds either with a disappointing blandness or with the laboured theatricality of an expensive college production. Expositions pop up like rashes and stereotypes abound. The deaths of key characters are given such a rushed treatment that they feel almost anti-climactic. Motivations are dropped and attitudes change to ensure the plot lurches ahead at regular intervals, albeit unconvincingly. In a first, Bhansali disrupts the rhythm of song-and-dance sequences by pulling the viewer out of the kaleidoscopic beauty of kathak in baroque interiors and inserts them into dull narrative moments, like when we’re expected to believe a nawab is so drunk he can’t tell the wooden slats of a window from a woman’s mouth. (Boys, do not try this at home.) In an ironic twist, these scenes in Heeramandi feel riddled with the anxiety of losing the audience’s attention much like the courtesans (and OTT platforms) are by the prospect of their patrons going to a rival performer.  

The task of holding together Heeramandi’s unwieldy and unevenly-paced story falls on its starry cast. Sinha and Rao Hydari, as Fareedan and Bibbojaan respectively, look exquisite and make a valiant effort to add some depth to the tissue-thin writing. The only actor who is able to take Heeramandi’s overwrought dialogues and give them the gloss of easy, everyday poetry is Farida Jalal, who plays Tajdar’s grandmother, Qudsia. Sinha’s Fareedan is dazzling in the song “Tilasmi Bahein” and her abrasive irreverence offers a delightful contrast to the well-behaved women in Mallikajaan’s coterie. Sinha also brings out the best in her co-stars and among Heeramandi’s most memorable scenes are the ones in which Fareedan engages in repartee with Bibbojaan and Mallikajaan. Koirala looks the part of Mallikajaan, who has the arrogance and madness of William Shakespeare’s King Lear and the gendered baggage with which Bhansali invariably weighs down his strongest women (more on that later). However, Koirala struggles with this character’s tonality and dialogues. Neither Koirala’s appearance nor performance are charismatic enough to distract from the inconsistencies in the writing. 

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

Being a Woman in Heeramandi

The weakest links in Heeramandi are Segal Mehta as Alamzeb and Sheikh as Waheeda. One can’t help but feel sorry for Sheikh because Waheeda is systematically stripped of gravitas and menace by the stunts the script forces her to pull. Mallikajaan describes Waheeda as a pawn to her face, but it’s the screenplay that toys with her. From making Waheeda work herself up to an orgasm while moaning “Cartwright” literally seconds after meeting Cartwright (Jason Shah), to her idiotically refusing to learn from her mistakes, Waheeda comes across less as calculating and more as unhinged. In contrast, Segal Mehta has an author-backed role which boasts of an impressive arc. Alamzeb goes from being a girl with her head in the clouds to a woman who is both made and unmade by love. Yet Segal Mehta plays this part with monumental monotony. She has the same non-expression when she’s catatonic with grief as she does when giddy with newfound love.      

Based on a story by Moin Beg and adapted for screen by Bhansali — he is credited for the screenplay, and was helped by a team of 10 writers. Bhansali’s other credits on Heeramandi are for editing, music direction and direction — on paper, Heeramandi is powered by women. Yet the show’s recurring motif is the debasement of women. In her introductory scene, Mallikajaan declares courtesans like herself are the “rani” (queens) of Lahore, but over the course of the show, Mallikajaan’s regal airs are exposed to be superficial. She’s unable to protect either herself or those she loves and almost every time she takes a stand, she has to go back on it. Mallikajaan’s few shows of strength are when she is face to face with women like Qudsia and Fareedan, characters who can hold their own against the huzoor (master) of the Shahi Mahal kotha (where the courtesans live and hold performances). In contests with men, Mallikajaan is consistently outwitted and her “tevar” (attitude) feels more like bluster. Without the protection of the nawab Zulfikar (Shekhar Suman), she’s vulnerable and incapable of defending herself. 

Additionally, the show doesn’t allow Mallikajaan to make statements of defiance. For instance, when Mallikajaan appeals to a minor character for help, he taunts her by demanding she sing and dance for him because she’s a “nautch girl”. This could have been Mallikajaan’s “Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya” moment, but instead, Bhansali reduces an artiste who is supposed to be a legendary performer into a suddenly-nervous woman, singing in a tremulous voice, her body moving to the rhythm of fear.

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

The Virtue of Being a Victim

Torn between an almost juvenile conflation of virtue and sexlessness, and the appeal of a woman who knows what brings her pleasure and isn’t intimidated by desire, Heeramandi struggles to do right by its women protagonists. From Bhansali’s filmography, it seems the director is drawn to tragedy queens and his heroines invariably earn sympathy and respect through their tremendous and immaculate suffering. In Heeramandi, this is disturbingly prevalent in the way the courtesans are victimised by the narrative. Take, for example, the character played by Richa Chadha who is not just wasted in a role, but also plays a character who is literally wasted. 

Chadha’s Lajjo makes her entry in the gorgeous “Sakal Ban” song sequence. She is seen in only two episodes and in sharp contrast to the actor’s off-screen dynamism and strength, Lajjo is a pathetic wreck of a woman. With every scene, she loses a little more of her dignity, as though the process of being broken by patriarchy is what earns her respect from the show’s narrative. This happens to others in Heeramandi too and it’s ironic because historically, the culture of the tawaifs was distinctive for the way it dismissed certain key patriarchal values. Privileging women and a matrilineal line, the tawaifs cultivated a community whose guiding principles are more aligned to what we in contemporary society would describe as queer, with emphases upon pride, camp performance, and a mother figure at the apex of its hierarchy.

There’s an undercurrent of disgust, anxiety and shame surrounding sex in Heeramandi. As a result, even though there are crass dialogues and no real distinction is made between the “randi” (derogatory slang for sex worker) and the tawaif (courtesan), Heeramandi is dedicatedly chaste in its sensibility. Not even the women characters who are brazen about their sex work are shown to touch their clients. Despite being blatant about wanting to run a brothel in Heeramandi — as opposed to the kotha that courtesans run — and proudly declaring that any man who has slept with her will crawl back to her side, at one point Fareedan insists no man has ever touched her. We’re told that even the tailor is not allowed to come in contact with her skin to take measurements. 

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

In Praise of Tawaifs

Mallikajaan, who has been Zulfikar’s lover for decades and birthed his illegitimate children, says she may have failed as a sister, a mother and as a friend, but as a tawaif, no one can question her excellence. Yet Heeramandi isn’t able to establish what a tawaif really is in Bhansali’s world, other than being disrespected by others. Towards the end, Mallikajaan describes the tawaif as a paragon of “saazish, fareb, chaalbaazi…aur kameenapan (being conspiring, deceitful, sly and vile)”. If the show intended to take pride in the tawaif’s chutzpah and the contradiction of being both counter-culture as well as a custodian of tradition, it fails to do this because its protagonists’ immorality becomes a stumbling block. Heeramandi labours to reorient the tawaif’s wonky moral compass and tries to restore their reputation by making these women conform to established (masculine-led) definitions of heroism. 

Ahead of the show’s abrupt conclusion, Heeramandi goes dark and we hear Fareedan say she will no longer perform because her new “maqsad” (goal) is to work towards India’s independence (rather than her own). This is a contradiction that didn’t need to be set up. Arguably the better way to support revolutionaries would be by keeping Heeramandi in business so that funds from the courtesans’ earnings could be channelled to the rebels. The neighbourhood could become a haven hidden in plain sight, camouflaged from the police’s eyes by its reputation of vice and frivolity. Instead, we get a procession that has an air of defeated self-annihilation, similar to the jauhar-inspired exodus of Padmaavat (2018). According to Heeramandi, the only way for the tawaif to find respectability is by erasing herself.  

At one point, a tearful Tajdar, who initially holds courtesans in contempt, tells his father that Heeramandi is not peopled by others, but with the illegitimate daughters of the elite. If the aristocratic men would open their hearts, minds and homes to these women, the notorious neighbourhood would shut down without violence or discordance, he says. It’s tempting to imagine how Fareedan and Mallikajaan would react to this idea, which would require courtesans to give up the work that gives them autonomy and power. With cackling laughter? An arched eyebrow?  What Bhansali and his writing team seem unable to imagine is a group of women who aren’t craving the cloister of respectability, women who have set up their own social order and don’t aspire to be absorbed into the patriarchal fold. To quote Fareedan, “Purani deewarein paar nahin ki jaati, gira di jaati hain (long-standing walls are not to be scaled, they must be brought down).” 

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