Heeramandi Review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s New Netflix Series Is a Visual Treat That Won’t Keep You Hooked

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has become synonymous with extravagantly lavish sets and his latest Netflix original TV series, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, is no exception to his signature filmmaking style that favours flamboyance, glitz, and grandeur – except in this case, it has superseded characters and screenplay. There are dazzling diamonds, ornate buildings, intricately designed ensembles, royal antiques but coherent ideas, well-defined characters and an engaging story are nowhere to be found.

The eight-episode-long show starring the likes of Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Sharmin Segal, Adhyayan Suman, and Fardeen Khan, is a story of powerful tawaifs (courtesans) of pre-Independence Lahore when the pleasure district wasn’t just a fancy brothel, but a melting pot of arts and culture where the elite went to learn etiquettes and refinement. These spaces served as a school for polishing nawab behaviour, and Bhansali’s Heeramandi does manage to capture the social reality and the emotional turmoil of these women.

In his version of the elite red-light area, you’ll meet tawaifs of all kinds: manipulative, shrewd, benevolent, heartbroken, delusional, cunning, vengeful, poetic, and even rebellious. While each tawaif has a distinct personality and a tragic back story of her own, what is common amongst these twirling damsels is the misery of being confined to the “golden cage” of a life, lusted upon by the so-called nobles of society and hypocritically ridiculed in public. Even the most powerful of these women carries a void within and believes that “only death can set them free”, including Koirala’s protagonist Mallikajaan, the most influential of them all, who owns an opulent brothel called Shahi Mahal (royal palace).

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Manisha Koirala plays a powerful tawaif who owns a lavish brothel in Heeramandi

Mallikajan is perpetually intoxicated and won’t shy away from selling you off in the blink of an eye to recover the price of a small pearl. She has the nawabs under her thumbs, isn’t scared of the British, and holds immense political sway. Each time Koirala appears on screen, she brings in an eeriness and unpredictability, throwing viewers off the edge. While at first, her character might seem like Gangubai Kathiawadi, Mallikajaan is not half as good-hearted and unabashedly owns up to being a prick of a person.

While her “empire” seems infallible, things take an interesting turn when her equally powerful and cunning niece Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha), who was sold off by Mallika at the age of nine, comes back to Heeramandi with nothing but revenge on her mind. With both driven and complex characters trying to raze each other to the ground, the show sets up a powerful clash between the two formidable women.

Numerous other story arcs are running parallelly: a brothel-born Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal) wants to become a poetess instead of a courtesan, the talented Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) secretly works with the rebels fighting against British Raj, an opium-addict Lajjo (Richa Chadha) has fallen irrevocably in love with a scoundrel of a nawab, a London-retuned nawab called Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha) hates Heeramandi but ends up falling in love with a tawaif, the vengeful Waheedajaan (Sanjeeda Sheikh) wants to become a huzoor, and the feisty Shama (Pratibha Ranta) is raising voice against her mother who is jealous of her youth and beauty.

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Sharmin Segal plays a tawaif’s daughter who wants to become a poetess instead of a Heeramandi courtesan

Even with so many overlapping characters, on paper the script is strong and impactful, with the potential of having follow-up seasons. Unlike usual commercial cinema, there are no black-and-white characters; even the villains are shown in a grey light with various gradients of human emotions. The darkest of characters are dissected to such an extent that a peek into the shreds of emotions they left long ago is ensured. There is a particular scene in which Sinha’s Fareedan puts a gorgeous nose pin on an otherwise chatty Ustaad Ji (Indresh Malik), the cringe homosexual pimp of Heeramandi, followed by a pin-drop silence and a tsunami of emotions on his face. The scene is powerful, compelling and conveys a lot without words.

Similarly, there is a candid conversation between two maids of the mandi in which they are mocking their initial dreams of becoming the biggest tawaif. The way even the smallest of such nuances of side characters have been portrayed is impressive.

For that matter, even the stark contrast between the colourful, gem-studded courtrooms of the tawaifs, and the torturous atrocities of the British outside their luxe walls is fascinating. While there are slogans of the Quit India Movement echoing outside, nawabs are busy in revelry within the confines of these royal brothels – which, by the way, harbour a few patriotic tawaifs who have played a pivotal role in the freedom struggle.

While these courtesans might not have been able to etch their role in the movement in the pages of selective history, the show has covered the aspect in detail. How some tawaifs would subtly or seductively extract crucial information from the nawabs, or sometimes help the rebels hide ammunition, has been covered through Hydari’s Bibbojaan, who has once again done a fabulous job.

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Sanjeeda Sheikh in a still from Heeramandi

However, what’s saddening is that Bhansali seems to have struggled to adapt the script properly for screens. Of course, we aren’t referring to the larger-than-life sets; full marks there. But, while it would have made for an excellent book, the series won’t keep you hooked or longing for more.

Given that Bhansali has been sitting on the idea for more than a decade, the results are not up to the mark. There are a few immensely powerful scenes and moving dialogues scattered here and there, but the show is somehow unable to maintain that momentum, with equally lethargic and over-stretched fillers in between. The show would have easily fared better sans a few unnecessary sequences.

Heeramandi also struggles with pacing, especially towards the end. While the finale is powerful in itself, the transition from the seventh to the eighth episode is sudden, abrupt, and feels like a rushed job. The performances are a mixed bag, too. Bhansali’s choice of casting of his niece Sharmin Segal as Mallikajaan’s younger daughter Alamzeb, a poetess at heart, ends up harming the show. How can someone destroy a character written so beautifully? There are scenes where instead of a dreamy woman in love, Segal comes off as a lost human on drugs. Even her chemistry with Tajdar feels unnatural and forced. The casting choice, which reeks of nepotism, ends up wrecking one of the main characters of the series.

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Fardeen Khan plays a nawab with a small screen time and just a few dialogues

Richa Chadha also comes off as a wrong fit for Lajjo. Maybe the fault here doesn’t lie with Chadha, who has tried hard to slip into the role of a lovelorn woman who has lost her wits because of her lover’s betrayal, rather her typecasting as Fukrey’s roguish Bholi Punjaban. Those familiar with Chadha’s previous work might find it challenging to see her this broken and helpless.

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Aditi Rao Hydari’s Bibbojaan is a poised courtesan who helps the rebels in their fight against the British Raj

However, one character that left an indelible impact on me was Sanjeeda Sheikh’s Waheeda. A special shout out to Sheikh for doing a splendid job of playing Mallikajaan’s emotionally scarred younger sister. Her expressions, body language, dialogue delivery – everything is top-notch. She carries the rawness of wounded femininity so aptly. For some reason, I wasn’t really expecting this fine of a performance from Sheikh, who has outdone herself this time. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say her twisted character could easily carry off its own spin-off.

With so many power-packed performances scattered throughout the show, it is saddening to see the overall tone dipping multiple times. A crisper version of the show with cleaner edits would have done the trick for me. Full marks on production design and message, but Heeramandi fails to sustain its extravagance beyond the surface.

All eight episodes of Heeramandi are now available to stream on Netflix.

Rating: 5.5/10

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