Heeramandi review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's sprawling, sparkling debut show is blissfully free of his cinematic trappings | Web Series - Hindustan Times
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Heeramandi review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's sprawling, sparkling debut show is blissfully free of his cinematic trappings

ByDevansh Sharma
May 01, 2024 01:50 PM IST

Heeramandi review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali makes a seamless transition to the language of streaming, retaining his scale sans any obsession with the spectacle.

Heeramandi review: Remember when Sanjay Leela Bhansali made his first tryst with direction, with the songs of Vidhu Vinod Chopra's 1994 romance 1942: A Love Story. When Manisha Koirala celebrated love, romance, rebellion, and freedom, levitating across lush greens with her luminescence. At the end of Pyar Hua Chupke Se, her union with a prince charming riding a horse is interrupted by a protest march for India's Independence. Now, 30 years later, Bhansali and Manisha reunite to tell another tale of freedom, personal and political, with his debut show, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar.

Heeramandi review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's debut show has a range of fine actors
Heeramandi review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's debut show has a range of fine actors

(Also Read – Sonakshi Sinha exclusive interview: ‘The entire set broke into standing ovation after the first take in Tilasmi Bahein’)

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The Netflix India Original show reminds us how far the two artists have come in terms of honing their craft and carving out their identities. Manisha plays Mallika Jaan, the madam of a brothel in Heeramandi, a Lahore locality, during pre-Independence India. The casting works instantly – The Manisha who lit up the screen in Bahon Ke Darmiya, the timeless melody from Bhansali's 1996 directorial debut Khamoshi: The Musical, dances or sings reluctantly. She holds unabating pride in her past, but is also decidedly stuck in that glory. With one expression, one gesture, we gauge the life she's led, the triumphs she's scored, and the innocence she's lost. We don't need Heeramandi to play out in linear biopic fashion like Gangubai Kathiawadi because shadows from their past sneak out from one corner of the Shahi Mahal or the other.

One can also sense the immense liberation Bhansali made in creating this show. Because not only the story has stayed with him for years, but also because the long format allows him to break free of his own cinematic trappings. If you're expecting an Aishwarya Rai dashing across with fire on her pallu, or Madhuri Dixit satiating your eyes with a filmy mujra, or Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone passionately making love, Heeramandi is not your Vitamin Bhansali. Actors needn't be stars here, the plot pacing leaves no scope for leisurely slow motion shots, and the tawaifs perform with grace, but not much fanfare. As ironic as it sounds, each and every mujra insists that the tawaif (courtesan) is dancing only for herself, not for the nawabs, and certainly not for the audience.

The tawaifs dance for themselves.
The tawaifs dance for themselves.

Striking the perfect balance

Which also means that Heeramandi comes out as a great whole, instead of merely a sum of its good parts. There aren't grand sequences that can be viewed on repeat, divorced from the plot. For instance, as shown in the song Azadi, when the tawaifs walk towards a prison wall at night, holding torches in their hands, and braving the police who obstruct the path, the sight may not be as clinically stunning as the jauhar sequence at the end of Padmaavat (2018). But it hits home harder because we've been witness to their stories throughout the show. Their walk of rebellion doesn't hinge on only one rousing speech (like Deepika Padukone's in Padmaavat), but is meticulously documented and heartily depicted.

Bhansali wastes no time in Heeramandi. Every scene has a purpose, yet there are no narrative fillers. Each scene leaves you with a dialogue to remember, a frame to freeze in your mind, or a moment to applaud. The freedom struggle looms large over the plot, but it doesn't spawn sermons. There are ripples of the rebellion throughout the show, but majority of the eight episodes are invested in the game of one-upmanship between all the tawaifs – mother-daughter, sisters, and even aunt-niece. The plot has the spice of a saas-bahu opera, but with the finishing of a taut prestige drama. And the tone works wonders – through the kotha politics, Bhansali achieves a dual goal – of saucing up a lavish feast and drawing an analogy to India's freedom struggle. Divide and rule wasn't always the British's ammunition – like the tawaifs, Indians were too busy with their historical, intergenerational infighting to rise above their vested interests for a macro mutiny.

Sonakshi Sinha and Manisha Koirala in Heeramandi
Sonakshi Sinha and Manisha Koirala in Heeramandi

But Bhansali doesn't discount the tawaifs' personal struggles either. In fact, he reiterates that there's no difference between freedom of the self and freedom of the nation, between romance and rebellion, between ishq and inquilab, between the micro and the macro. The tawaifs are inherently so resigned to their fate of fluttering in a golden cage that they never even think of challenging colonialisation of any kind. The battles for ego and supremacy are thus mostly confined to their own tribe, and their own brothel. Oppression from their own kind over generations has made them almost immune to the claustrophobia of colonisation. It's only when they see sparks of other tawaifs as a catalyst to the suppressed blaze within, that their matchsticks turn into a wildfire, their rebellion evolves into a revolution.

The actors' report card

Manisha Koirala as Mallika Jaan is clearly the best of the lot. She makes you dread her towering, menacing presence as much feel for the pain she's buried deep down inside. Aditi Rao Hydari once again uses her dewy, gaping eyes to tell a million stories. It's nice to see her with a latent edge, with a simmering heart, after the short shrift she was given by Bhansali in Padmaavat. However, one could say Richa Chadha made more of an impact with the one standout scene she had in his Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela (2013) than the entire arc she has in Heeramandi. She's cast against type as a longing lover in denial. She makes the most with what she has – but one wished to see more of her. Sonakshi Sinha follows her incredible Dahaad performance with another notable one – her emotional turnaround comes as a respite to the villainous shades she's otherwise loaded with. Sanjeeda Sheikh also puts her beaming eyes to good use but as a perennially broken, deprived woman who can't get past greed and vengeance. She's terrific, and deserved a more rousing resolution to her arc.

Sanjeeda Sheikh in Heeramandi
Sanjeeda Sheikh in Heeramandi

Sharmin Segal and Taha Shah Badussha lend the much-needed youthful energy of two hopeful lovers in hopeless times. Sharmin, who is also Bhansali's niece, gets the princess treatment here, but her voice and dialogue delivery are awfully reminiscent of those of Sara Ali Khan. Not to say that she's bad, but she has a long way to go. That's not so much the case with Taha, who's dependably vulnerable and resolute, as and when required. He's a rare find and holds great promise. The other Nawabs – Fardeen Khan, Shekhar Suman, and Adhyayan Suman – do justice to their parts, but don't pass the male Bechdel test, if that's a thing. Farida Jalal has more of an arc and screen space than them, even though it's in her quintessential mould of a dadi. Needless to say, she's lovely and effervescent, even at 75.

Anju Mahendru also makes a cameo, as Fufi, the head of all tawaifs in Heeramandi. It's a blink-and-miss part, but Bhansali uses her as the mirror to the audience's expectations. When Mallika asks her to take action against Fareedan (Sonakshi), threatening to hold a mehfil on the same day as her, Fufi encourages that. Her idea may be to curb monopolisation, but the glint in her eyes at the idea of two tawaifs clashing against each other speaks volumes of the viewer's voyeuristic gaze. But towards the end, when she mobilises the tawaifs against the British, her change in perspective feels earned. Because we see that change reflect within us too. We cease to see the courtesans for the entertainers they are, and start to appreciate them for the revolutionaries they always were.

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