Sunday, May 05, 2024



Sanjay Leela Bhansali is an Indian auteur who specialises in lavish, big-budget costume dramas that feature stunning women in beautiful outfits singing heart-rending songs that Bhansali also writes. He is the Indian director as indulgent maximalist, though without the stunning landscapes of, say, a David Lean. Rather, Bhansali's control extends to creating huge sets in which his dramas are encased, lending them a claustrophobic, artificial air that often matches their narrative themes. This is nowhere more true than in his first TV series, HEERAMANDI.

Heeramandi may translate literally as The Diamond Bazaar, but subcontinental viewers will know it as the name of the red light district of Lahore, now in post-partition Pakistan.  But western viewers should banish any image of streetwalkers and take Geisha culture as their context. The madams of these opulent brothels train young girls in classical poetry, dance and music in order to seduce long-term aristocratic patrons or Nawabs. As such they form a triad of dependence with those Nawabs and the ruling British.  The Nawabs support the British because the British guarantee their lavish lifestyle and privilege relative to ordinary Indians.  And in turn the Nawabs financially support the courtesans of Heeramandi.  

The great irony of the series is that while the courtesans become politicised, they are essentially ending their own profession. Without the British there will be no Nawabs or patrons, and we know from history that many of these artists did end up as common prostitutes to survive. The gilded cage may be brutal - love cannot guarantee escape, and these woman are effectively slaves - but perhaps that is safer than life beyond it.

The series takes place in the 1920s and its two warring protagonists mark the contrast between tradition and modernity. Manisha Koirala (DIL SE...) is stunningly cruel as the traditional madam, Mallikajaan. She is a supremely successful businesswoman precisely because she rejects all sentimentality, even when it comes to her own family. Her antagonist is Fareedajaan, played by DABANG's Sonakshi Sinha. Sinha is very much a creature of the 1920s in her dress, hairstyle and even how she entertains, with cocktail parties rather than mujhras. Both actresses deliver outsized, high camp performances as selfish and successful woman, exploiting Nawabs, the British and their own family members alike. 

The tragedy plays itself out with the younger generation of courtesans. Richa Chadha (GANGS OF WASSEYPUR) is heartbreaking as Lajjo, a courtesan betrayed by her patron and self-medicating with alcohol and delusion. The role of the heartbroken and betrayed courtesan is a trope in Indian cinema, and Bhansali's exploits the viewers' familiarity with it to add layers of pathos. 

And then there is the political awakening of Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) who uses her training in seducing men to provide information for the revolutionaries and ends up echoing the iconography of Nargis in Mehboob Khan's MOTHER INDIA.

Where the show is weaker is in its love story. Bhansali's niece Sharmin Segal is a lacklustre screen presence as the thinly written poetess Alamzeb.  Her love story with the Nawab's nephew is rather feeble and by the numbers.  Similarly, the British characters are all caricature baddies.  Characters become political and bury hatchets on a whim.  But all this can be forgiven as we gaze at the stunning outfits and puzzle over the inherent tension between the self-titled "Queens" of Lahore exerting power within their gilded cage, but ultimately being brutalised by the system they claim to run.

HEERAMANDI: THE DIAMOND BAZAAR was released on Netflix on May 1st.

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