Heeramandi Review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's series is a beautiful but tedious watch

Heeramandi is a stunning magnum opus, but leaves a lot to be desired

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Wed 1 May 2024, 11:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 1 May 2024, 5:09 PM

Bollywood’s love for tawaifs is legendary. From Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam to Umrao Jaan and Devdas, the doomed courtesan with a heart of gold and a life of suffering has fascinated our filmmakers. Our on-screen nautch girls have also given Indian cinema some of its most loved melodies, making us hold a candle of nostalgia for those soothing songs and graceful dances performed for lusty nawabs and sahibs.

It is into this world that Sanjay Leela Bhansali takes us in his latest magnum opus Heeramandi, streaming on Netflix.

Now, Bhansali does not direct movies; he paints them. You can mute the film and still marvel at the colours, opulence and magic he weaves on screen. So, when an auteur like him brings his refined sensibilities to OTT, your expectations go several notches high. There was another reason to get excited by Heeramandi. At a time when OTT content has become synonymous with dark, edgy storylines and visceral violence, a show about a gentler era filled with tehzeeb, impeccable grace, poetry and art, seemed like an exciting proposition.

Alas, what do they say about not judging a book by its embellished cover?

Don’t get me wrong. Heeramandi ticks quite a few boxes in the tawaif-universe. There are frequent mehfils, gorgeous outfits, poetic monologues and plenty of music and dance. It’s a beautiful-looking series made with a lot of heart (it’s said that the director has been living this dream for 18 years!). There is immense attention paid to detail, be it the intricate embroidery on the dupattas or the light streaming through ornate jaalis, or the rich jewellery worn by the cast. The sets are breathtaking even if they look like leftovers from Gangubai Kathiawadi or Padmaavat. The choreography and music, while not as jaw-dropping as those we have seen in Bhansali’s films, are stunning with top shots capturing the synchronised movements in style.

Yet… something somewhere does not connect.

Set in pre-independence Lahore, Heeramandi deep dives into the world of courtesans. But Bhansali’s tawaifs of Heeramandi are no self-sacrificing wallflowers. In an interesting subversion of conventions, the director constructs a political-romantic-period-patriotic saga featuring devious, strong women who do not hesitate to lie, kill, seduce and betray in their pursuit of power and passion.

At the centre of the conflict is the most powerful kotha (brothel) in Lahore, Shahimahal, presided over by the queenpin Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala). She rules the place with an iron fist and controls the destinies of all the women around her, be it her daughters Lajjo (Richa Chadha) Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) and Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal) or her sister Waheeda (Sanjeeda Sheikh). Into this equation enters Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha), a disgruntled relative seeking revenge for an unforgivable crime committed by Mallikajaan. Beyond the politics and walls of Shahimahal, a greater revolution of the Indian independence struggle brews, eventually impacting the residents of the kotha.

All this sounds excellent on paper, and the series could have been a delicious tale of love, retribution and power, but the problem lies in the route that Bhansali and his writers take. Working off a story by Moin Beg, Heeramandi begins well but soon starts to get tedious. A lot happens over the eight episodes – a forbidden love story, a complex property battle, murder, sibling rivalry, unfulfilled desires, insecurities and rebellion (I am sure I have still not listed all the themes!). But after a point, they fail to hold your interest because the writing follows a very linear path. The screenplay has a lot of action, but shifts in tonality and character motivations leave you perplexed. What makes the tawaifs suddenly want to be a part of a larger cause? Why does Fareedan, who was after Mallikajaan’s pride and haveli, develop sympathy for her? How did the women exert so much power over the men they served? Or did they actually have the influence?

To think of it, the premise is fascinating – women, shunned and scorned by society, actually holding the keys to the men who rule it. As a character says, “The nawabs ruled India and the courtesans had control over nawabs." While this aspect has been covered, the relationships between the nawabs and the courtesans feel under-explored, except in Lajjo’s love story.

The result is that you end up becoming an impassive viewer, liking what is being played out on the screen but not really being invested in them. This is real pity because each of the women have definite character arcs that demanded more depth. From among the leading ladies, it’s Aditi Rao Hydari who stands out. She’s luminous and you can feel her pathos when she’s heartbroken. Manisha Koirala makes a bewitching Mallikajaan, however, it’s not a performance for the ages. Sonakshi Sinha sticks to the script but fails to add any new layers. All characters speak in slow, controlled theatrical version, which robs them of an emotional impact.

Similarly, the men look regal but that’s about it. From among Fardeen Khan’s Wali Mohammed, Shekhar Suman’s Zulfikar, Adhyayan Suman’s Zorawar and Taaha Shah’s Tajdar, it’s Taaha who gets the meatiest part as Alamzeb’s forbidden love interest. The young actor oozes sincerity and has performed well. However, can our filmmakers please invest in better white actors? The men playing the British officers out to destroy Shahimahal and its inhabitants are an embarrassment, with their stilted dialogue delivery and stiff performance.

When it comes to courtesans, the gold and platinum standard has been set by Rekha and Meena Kumari. Is that why Heeramandi’s lovely ladies don’t seem to match up? Perhaps it’s time to rewatch Madhubala’s brave call for love as she serenades her prince in Akbar’s court or get immersed in Rekha’s soulful ghazals and heartbreak to get that whiff of nostalgia back. The diamonds in this Heeramandi don’t quite shine as bright.


Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Cast: Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Richa Chadha, Sharmin Segal, Fardeen Khan, Shekhar Suman, Adhyayan Suman, Taaha Shah

Rating: 2.5 stars