Heeramandi Review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s New Netflix Series Is A Visual Delight That Won’t Keep You Addicted

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 favors opulence, glitz and grandeur—except in this case , that there are replaced characters and script. There are dazzling diamonds, ornate buildings, intricately designed complexes, royal antiquities, but coherent ideas, well-defined characters and an engaging story are nowhere to be found.

The eight-episode show starring Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Sharmin Segal, Adhyayan Suman and Fardeen Khan is a story of powerful tawaifs (wooers) of pre-independence Lahore, when the pleasure district was not just a sophisticated public home, but a melting pot of arts and culture, where the elite went to learn etiquette and refinement. These spaces served as the nawab’s behavioral polishing school and Bhansali’s Heeramandi manages to capture the social reality and emotional turmoil of these women.

In his version of the elite Red Lantern Zone, you’ll encounter tawaifs of all stripes: manipulative, shrewd, well-intentioned, heartbroken, deluded, cunning, vengeful, poetic, and even rebellious. While each tawaif has a different personality and their own tragic backstory, what is common among these spinning girls is the misery of being locked in the “golden cage” of life, coveted by the so-called nobles of society and hypocritically ridiculed in public. Even the most powerful of these women carry a void within them and believe that “only death can set them free,” including Koirala Mallikajan’s protagonist, the most powerful of them all, who owns a lavish brothel called the Shahi Mahal (royal palace ).

Manisha Koirala plays a powerful tawaifa who owns a lavish brothel in Hieramandi

Mallikajan is constantly drunk and won’t hesitate to sell you out in the blink of an eye to recoup the cost of a small pearl. She keeps the nawabs under her thumb, is not afraid of the British and has enormous political influence. Every time Koirala appears on screen, she brings an eerie and unpredictable air, throwing viewers off the edge. While at first her character may seem like Gangubai Kathiawadi, Mallikajaan is not half as good-hearted and shamelessly admits to being a fool of a person.

Although her ’empire’ seems infallible, things take an interesting turn when her equally powerful and cunning niece Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha), who was sold by Mallika at the age of nine, returns to Hieramandi with nothing but revenge. With driven and complex characters trying to level each other to the ground, the show creates a powerful clash between the two formidable women.

Numerous other story arcs run parallel: brothel-born Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal) wants to become a poet instead of a courtesan, talented Bibojan (Aditi Rao Hydari) secretly works with rebels fighting the British Raj, opium addict Lajo (Richa Chadha). has fallen irrevocably in love with a scoundrel of a nawab, returned to London a nawab named Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha) hates Heeramandi but ends up falling in love with a tawaif, the vengeful Waheedajaan (Sanjeeda Sheikh) wants to become a huzur, and the feisty Shama (Pratibha Ranta ) raises her voice against her mother, who is jealous of her youth and beauty.

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

Even with so many overlapping characters, on paper the script is strong and impactful, with potential for subsequent seasons. Unlike the usual commercial cinema, there are no black and white characters here; even the villains are shown in gray light with different gradients of human emotions. The darkest characters are dissected to such an extent that a glimpse is provided of the remnants of emotions they left behind long ago. There is a particular scene in which Sinha’s Faridan places a magnificent needle in the nose of the otherwise chatty Ustaad Ji (Indresh Malik), Hieramandi’s homosexual pimp, followed by silence and a tsunami of emotion on his face. The scene is powerful, compelling and conveys a lot without words.

Similarly, there is a candid conversation between two mandi maids in which they mock their initial dreams of becoming the greatest tawaifs. The way even the smallest similar nuances of side characters are portrayed is impressive.

For that matter, even the stark contrast between the colorful, bejeweled courtrooms of the Tawaifs and the harrowing atrocities of the British outside their luxurious walls is fascinating. Even as slogans of the Quit India movement echo outside, the nawabs are busy reveling within the confines of these royal brothels – which, incidentally, house several patriotic Tawaits who played a key role in the freedom struggle.

While these courtesans may not have been able to write their role in the movement into the pages of selected history, the show covered this aspect in detail. How some tawais subtly or seductively extract important information from the nawabs or sometimes help the rebels hide ammunition was covered by Hydari’s Bibojan, who again did an amazing job.

Sanjeeda Sheikh in Hieramandi shot

However, the sad thing is that Bhansali seems to have struggled to properly adapt the script for screens. Of course, we’re not talking about the larger-than-life sets; full marks there. But while it would make an excellent book, the series won’t keep you hooked or yearning for more.

Considering Bhansali has been sitting on the idea for over a decade, the results have not been up to par. There are a few extremely strong scenes and poignant dialogue sprinkled here and there, but the show somehow fails to sustain that momentum, with equally lethargic and overwrought filler in between. The show would have easily done better without a few unnecessary sequences.

Heeramandi also struggles with the pace, especially towards the end. While the finale is strong on its own, the transition from episode seven to episode eight is sudden, abrupt, and feels like a rush job. Performances are also mixed. Bhansali’s choice to cast his niece Sharmin Segal as Mallikajaan Alamzeb’s younger daughter, a poet at heart, ends up hurting the show. How could anyone destroy a character so beautifully written? There are scenes where instead of a dreamy woman in love, Segal looks like a lost man on drugs. Even her chemistry with Tajdar feels unnatural and forced. A casting choice that reeks of nepotism ends up ruining one of the show’s main characters.

Fardeen Khan plays the nawab with little screen time and only a few dialogues

Richa Chadha also seems ill-suited for Lajjo. Perhaps the fault here lies not with Chadha, who has tried hard to slip into the role of a woman in love who has lost her mind due to her lover’s betrayal, but rather with her performance as Fukrey’s devious Bholi Punjaban. Those familiar with Chadha’s previous work may find it challenging to see her so broken and helpless.

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. Special thanks to Shaikh for a great job as 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 didn’t expect such a great performance from Sheikh, who outdid herself this time. It wouldn’t be pretentious to say that her twisted character could easily lead to her own spin-off.

With so many powerful performances scattered throughout the show, it’s sad to see the overall tone diminish multiple times. A clearer version of the show with cleaner edits would have worked for me. Full marks for the production design and the 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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