Heeramandi: A riveting spectacle that sheds light on a significant chapter of India’s freedom struggle through the lens of tawaifs

The dense plot with many characters and backstories takes time to get used to. But the series is a must-watch for its grandness and impactful storytelling
Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar (Hindi), 01-05-2024, Period Drama, 8 episodes A, OTT
  • Main Cast: Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chaddha, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Sharmin Segal, Farida Jalal, Fardeen Khan, Taha Shah, Adhyayan Suman, and Shekhar Suman
  • Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  • Producer: Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Prerna Singh
  • Music Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  • Cinematography: Sudeep Chatterjee, Mahesh Limaye, Huenstang Mohapatra, and Ragul Dharuman
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Published in: Southfirst

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s empathy for sex workers or the fallen woman is a separate genre in itself. He presents them not only in a larger-than-life manner but also makes them take a stand for an important cause.

Much before Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) happened, there were Devadas (2002) and Saawariya (2007) that had Madhuri Dixit Nene and Rani Mukherjee respectively playing sex workers in the respective movies.

In both movies, there is a visible sensitivity in the way he writes these women.

Gangubai Kathiawadi, based on a heart-touching real-life story, further highlighted Bhansali’s empathetic approach. In the film, he combined the elements of grandeur and masala storytelling while making some important points.

In his digital debut, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has once again touched upon women in the sex trade with a strong undercurrent of socio-political aspects.

Synopsis

Manisha Koiralain ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’. (X)

The story of Heeramandi is set at the peak of India’s freedom struggle.

Mallikajaan (a ferocious Manisha Koirala) is the reigning queen of a powerful palatial house in pre-independent Lahore. She is surrounded by an army of gorgeous women like the elder daughter Biboo (a radiant Aditi Rao Hydari) and Lajjo (Richa Chaddha).

Lajjo is a daughter-like figure to Mallikajaan. She was sold to her at an early age.

Mallikajaan’s younger sister is Waheeda (Sanjeeda Shaikh).

There is also Alamzeb, Bhansali’s niece Sharmin Segal, who plays the second daughter of Mallikajaan. Alamzeb has no interest in following her mother’s footsteps and instead wants to become a poetess.

Mallikajaan’s hold over the area takes a severe beating with the arrival of Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha in a career-defining performance). Fareedan is hell-bent on taking revenge, she has a history with Mallikajaan and has qualities which are similar to the latter.

As the plot progresses, the internal strife and politics of the brothel along with the freedom struggle run by side eventually leads to the trio of women playing an important part in India’s freedom struggle.

Inspiring execution by Bhansali

Richa Chaddha and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. (X)

The beginning episodes of Heeramandi can be difficult to follow with the multiple plots.

For example, the double role of Sonakshi and why Fareedan is hell-bent on bringing down the pride of Mallikajaan and the anguish of Waheeda who feels let down by Mallikajaan. However, once the story settles down the proceedings keep you thoroughly intrigued.

The way Fareedan takes on Mallikajaan and the scenes of them trying to outdo each other are a delight to watch. They both come across as equals with all guns blazing.

There is a generational trauma that begins with the death of an important person that cannot be revealed here.

One of my favourite scenes in the web show is the portion where Mallikajaan praises Fareedan by saying that neither Biboo nor Alamzeb has inherited her qualities.

Heeramandi also has a wonderful love story in the form of Alamzeb and Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha). Tajdar is Oxford-educated and dashingly handsome. He is the rebel son, while the father is a Nawab who is completely pro-establishment.

The father doesn’t approve of neither Tajdar’s love nor his being a part of the revolution.

Tajdar does not know that Alamzeb is the daughter of Mallikajaan for a long time. There is a playfulness in their romance that brings a smile to the viewer’s face.

Similarly, the audience also feels sad when their love story does not have a happy ending.

A scene that needs to be talked about here is when Tajdar dies in the police cell on the night when he is dressed up as a groom. The father leaks the information to the British officer as he is dead against having a tawaif’s offspring as a daughter-in-law.

The torturous death of Tajdar is a perfect example of state-supported custodian violence.

Makes an impact

Sharmin Segal in ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’. (X)

Through Heeramandi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has also touched upon how it was not just the British who followed the divide-and-rule policy. Some Indians were also busy fighting among themselves for supremacy and vested interests.

This comes out through the juxtaposition of brothel politics and India’s freedom struggle.

The songs composed by Bhansali also strike a chord. A song that deserves a particular mention is “Azadi“, which plays out in the final episode.

The tawaifs march towards a prison wall at night with a swelling background score. The police try to stop them but this group of determined women do not give up and start hitting back.

Unlike the hugely polarising Jauhar sequence in Padmavaat (2018), this has much more of an emotional impact because it does not come across as a fashion parade.

The weak-hearted would have a tough time holding back their tears, it is impossible to not root for them and applaud their bravery.

In spite of their wealth and social standing, the Nawabs backed away from the fight against the British. These women, on the other hand, decided to fight back and not give in.

The styling and the taking of some shots look like a replica of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s previous movies. For instance, the crowded lanes. But this is not a major deterrent.

Manisha Koirala & Sonakshi Sinha stand out

Sonakshi Sinha in a working still. (X)

Heeramandi has a sprawling cast but the ones who stand out are Manisha Koirala and Sonakshi Sinha.

Cast against type, both the actors sink their teeth into the respective roles and pass out with flying colours.

Manisha plays the mercurial patriarch with absolute glee. She does a first-rate job portraying both the negative shades and the deep inner agony.

Sonakshi Sinha matches step by step proving that she is highly underrated. She plays the firebrand devil with complete abandon,

Sonakshi has a commanding screen presence and it is difficult to move your eyes away when she is on screen.

Aditi Rao Hydari and Sanjeeda Sheikh also make their presence amply felt.

Richa Chaddha is fiery in the short but impactful role of a heartbroken woman.

Sharmin Segal is successful in portraying the innocence of a young girl but could have done better in some of the emotional scenes, nevertheless, the actor shares a wonderful chemistry with Taha.

Among men, Taha Shah makes the strongest impact. He does a swell job of showing the internal struggle of a young man torn between love and responsibility.

Special mention must be made of Farida Jalal, who makes for an adorable grandmother. The scenes between her and Taha also make for a good watch.

Verdict

Through Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has made an impactful debut in the digital format. The web series is a must-watch for those who like Bhansali’s mode of storytelling.

It is streaming on Netflix.

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