Series Review: ‘Heeramandi’

The Diamond Bazaar ‘Heeramandi’ is indeed a Kohinoor in Bhansali’s Crown!

By Dr Priyaankaa Mathur

Known for his epic films and cinematic excellence Sanjay Leela Bhansali succeeds yet again in astounding audiences with Heeramandi, which is indeed a masterpiece and happens to be one of his finest creations to date. Starring Manisha Koirala as (Mallika Jaan), Sonakshi Sinha (Faradeen/Rehana), Richa Chadha (Lajjo), Sanjeeda Shaikh (Waheeda), Aditi Rao Hydari (Bibbo) and Sharmin Segal Mehta (Alamzeb) as leading ladies. The series also stars Fardeen Khan (as Wali Mohammed), Jason Shah (Cartwright) and Taha Shah (Tajdar)in supporting roles.

Set in the early 1920s, Heeramandi is a saga depicting raw emotions of love, despair, betrayal, jealousy and patriotism. The series takes you to the ravishing world of the courtesans, the Queens of Heeramandi, who shine as the diamonds of this red light area of Lahore. No matter what life throws at them, these Queens always know how to win!

The series captures the grandeur and power of these courtesans, who bestowed beauty with the brains.They were innocent yet shrewd, politically empowered and enjoyed a powerful position in the society, supported by the Nawabs of Lahore. They were known for their ethereal beauty, charm, wit, tahzeeb, poetry,singing and dancing and  command over Urdu and Persian languages.

From the very first scene, you just enter the wonderland created by Bansali with its grand lavish sets bestowing luxurious yarns of velvet karchobi work curtains, rich aposteries, exotic glass chandeliers and candle stands, and richly painted palaces and haveli walls with dancing figures.Not to miss the meticulously crafted costumes and rich jewellery,that these courtesans adorned. In the Zanankhana of Shahi Mahal Mallika Jaan, the then Doyen of Heeramandi, is seen applying Mehendi,which is not yet dried. She walks into her meeting room with four servants lifting her Lehenga in utmost grace, to save the mehendi from smudging, portraying her as the Huzoor of Shahi Mahal which she reigns with a tight fist.

Being fluent in Urdu,you get the first glimpse of her proud lineage, when she meets a British gramophone salesman and mocks his accent of ‘Adabarz’.She eventually rejects his offer to do a gramophone recording of her daughter Bibbo Jaan ( Aditi Rao), who’s known for her sonorous voice ( beautifully rendered by Barnali Ganguly). Mallika Jaan makes a strong statement saying that the courtesans of Heeramandi did not serve the commoners.Instead, they were graced by their rich clientele of Nawabs for Mehfils in their palatial abode. She at one point says, “Heeramandi main angrezon ka nahi, Mallika Jaan ka sikka chalta hai “which captures well her attitude and anguish towards the British, who wanted to take away the power from the courtesans.

This musical extravaganza is indeed made for the classicists, who take pride in the traditional classical arts of India,but no harm levelling up the masses. It takes you to the medieval era of taleem of Indian classical music genres like Ghazal, Thumri and Sufi, complementing them with kathak dancing.The series takes you back to the rich legacy that these kothas restored, while the courtesans performed Mujras at Mehfils, wedding celebrations, which are brilliantly choreographed by Vijayshree Chaudhary, who’s known for her mastery of Kathak, being the disciple of the king of Kathak late Pandit Birju Maharajji.

The series touches the grim realities of courtesans, while they act pleasant outwardly, hiding their pain. From the celebration of Nath Utrayi ceremony of Alamzeb, who aspires to be a Shaira (poetess) and fights her destiny to become a Tawaif. Yet being the daughter of Mallika Jaan she is forcefully introduced as a maiden to the kothas on the occasion of Basant Panchami, that symbolises the new blossoming.

One can’t match Bansali’s imagination and direction in choosing a 13th-century composition ‘Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarson’ in Raga Bahar,written by Sufi Saint, Lyricist and Composer Hazrat Amir Khusro, who composed this song as a tribute to worship his Lord Hazrat Nizammudin Aulia. The song befittingly matches the traditional requirement of the script, it’s mood and cultural references of that era.

The song  has been beautifully rendered by Raja Hassan, which is quite a spectacle to watch as the leading ladies dance gracefully to the tukras and parants of kathak, incorporated beautifully in the song. The song is shot in full galore with a floor full of kathak dancers dancing vibrantly in brisk rotations (chakkars ).The song is indeed a viewers delight as the dancers adorn yellow costumes, depicting the very vitality of spring blossoming, which the raga Bahar depicts. One can witness exotic cinematography through the long sweeping shots, with fountains running at the chowk-bari, while few shots are taken through cutwork glass window panes showcasing the intricacy of vision, that only Bhansali can perceive, transporting you to that era.

The series bestows an exotic set of songs and background score.Bhansali this time has scouted new vocal talents like Raja Hassan for the songs ( Sakal Ban), Barnali Ganguly (Phool Gendua Naa Maro) and Kalpana Gandharva( Ek Bar Dekh Lijiye), with rich rustic, classically trained textured voices, that sound so apt for Sufi, thumri and ghazal renditions portraying the then era.

The series gives a close glimpse into the Nawab culture of lahore. The young Nawab Tajdar who’s just returned from Oxford after studying law is being initiated by his grandmother the gracefully old (Farida Jalal) to learn the Nawabi mannerisms, and art of lovemaking from the courtesans in return of wealth and riches.She invites Mallika Jaan for a Mushaira, while Taj refuses to learn anything from her and dislikes the courtesan culture. The question arises as to how the wives of these nawabs accepted this tradition, to be at peace with their men sharing beds and even their wealth with the courtesans who considered them as their Sahebs.

That’s where Bhansali yet again ensures that his storytelling reaches a wider range of audiences to discern between the just and unjust.The series gives a perspective about the Nawabs, as you see contrasting images of traditional Nawabs who took courtesans as a source for their enjoyment and fulfilling sexual desires and supported the British.While the educated Nawabs like Tajdar participated in the freedom struggle and spoke of a women’s dignity.The series also dares to show the possibility of love and marriage between a young Nawab Tajdar and Alamzeb who’s the daughter of Tawaif Mallika Jaan. A delicate romance develops when Tajdar, accidentally comes across Alamzeb at the Mushaira and falls for her at the very first site. The script brings out well his character of a romantic at heart yet a rebellious youth,who opposes his tradition of exploiting women in the kothas (brothels).

Aditi Rao looks ravishing as Bibbo Jaan, who’s an acclaimed songstress, dancer cum revolutionary spy.She excels in every aspect of her performance from emoting, dialogue delivery to performing mujras on the songs ‘Phool Gendua Na Maro’ and Saiyaan Hato Jawao’. She portrays a strong willed lady, and a proud daughter of the nation, as she becomes the first martyr amongst the courtesans in the Indian freedom struggle, which unfortunately never got that recognition. The song ‘Hamain Dekhni Jai Azadi’ sung by Archana Gore in her sonorous voice, brings a duel context to the film, which not only talks about the freedom struggle, but also about a tawaif’s liberation from all the  pain and sufferings at the time of her death.

Manisha Koirala nails every scene to perfection from being a skilled yet fiery courtesan with a captivating beauty and grace, a shrewd manipulator to playing a strict yet vulnerable mother. The eight-episodic series takes you through an emotional journey as her reign is threatened by a rival Fareedan/Rehana ( Sonakshi Sinha), while there is an undercurrent of rebellion with the Britishers.

Sonakshi Sinha as Fareedan has delivered one of her best performances so far acting as an arc rival to Mallika Jaan. She executes her negative shades and sensuality with panache especially in the song ‘Tilasmi Bahen’, while thereafter she bewitching calls challenging Mallika Jaan, after contemplating a defeat for her.

Sanjeeda Sheikh as Waheeda brilliantly displays many shades in her character, as she struggles for life and her existence. Shermin Segal as Alamzeb brings a sense of innocence to the plot as an aspiring shaira who reads Ghalib, Mir, Zafar and Niyazi and even tells Tajdar, “I will serve you couplets for breakfast and poems for lunch,”, while Taha Shah Badussha portrays well the lover boy, who’s passionate both about his lady love and his country.

Richa Chaddha leaves an enticing impression with her short yet emotional character Lajjo,who’s a love-lorn, drunkard, suffering from the anguish of betrayal. Fardeen Kahan befittingly portrays the royal Nawab, while Shekhar Suman and Adhyayan Suman portray the characteristic rich spoilt nawabs.

Apart from the galore and the grandeur of the courtesans, the film captures well the ongoing freedom struggle in the backdrop, which comes to the forefront in the last few episodes.The eight episodic series with 50 minutes each duration, takes you back and forth to flashbacks while Bansali brings his majestic flair to stories of love and betrayal in the lives of Mallika Jaan, Fardeen, Waheeda, Aalamzeb,Lajjo and Bibbojaan, finally leading to the collapse of the courtesan era.

Overall a must-watch series for audiences of all ages from music and art connoisseurs to commoners, as this film captures an untouched reality of the Indian freedom struggle, where courtesans played a monumental role. While, you certainly miss a big screen experience to witness the grandeur of Sanjay Leela Bhansali to relish more!

FF Ratings: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️