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Review: Heeramandi - The Diamond Bazaar (Web Series)

The web series Heeramandi, The Diamond Bazaar, written, directed and produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is a historical drama based on the life of courtesans (tawaifs) during the pre-independence era.

Ever since Heeramandi was released on Netflix, the internet is flooded by Heeramandi's success parties, reviews, interviews and memes. But what is the true story of Heeramandi? I will try to share few insights I gathered, along with my review of this 8 episode series. 

Heera-mandi translates to Diamond-Market in Urdu. The story dates back to Mughal period. The then Prime Minister of Punjab (undivided India) Heera Singh Dogra, established a Market (Bazaar/ Mandi) as an economic center to promote trade. The place was named after him - Heera's market, so Heeramandi. To promote the economic hub further, they brought women from different places who were well trained in various art forms like dance, poetry, music etc. to make it a cultural hub too. A fort was constructed closer to the Royal Court to house these women (called tawaifs) and was called the Shahi Mohalla. 

The tawaifs were highly trained in different arts and had a very influential and respectable position in the society. They entertained guests in their forts and also performed at the Royal courts. During British colonization, the tawaifs culture underwent a drastic decline. They lost their glory and were forced into prostitution, turning Heermandi into a red light area. Under the royal patronage, the tawaifs played a big role in the social, cultural and political aspects of the country. During Independence, they supported the freedom movement by hosting and supporting leaders, participating in protests against the British. Threatened by them, the British government raided and labelled them as involved in illegal activities, which eventually lead to the downfall of the tawaif culture. Known for their beauty and talent, post independence period, few of the tawaifs were known to have worked in the film industry. Even today Heeramandi exists as an economic hub and red light area in Lahore.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali, took this inspiration and developed a story set in Heeramandi, in 1940s in an attempt to bring out the lives of tawaifs. Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sharmin Segal Mehta, Sanjeedha Sheikh, Taha Shah Badussha played the key roles accompanied by Richa Chadha, Fareeda Jalal, Fardeen Khan, Sekhar Suman and Indresh Malik in supporting roles - Manisha as Mallikajaan (chief courtesan of Shahi Mahal), Sonakshi as Rehana and Fareedan (former chief courtesan of Shahi Mahal and daughter of Rehana), Aditi as Bibbojaan (Mallikajaan's elder daughter), Sharmin as Alamzeb (Mallikajaan's younger daughter), Taha shah as Tajdaar (Alamzeb's love interest), Richa Chadha as Lajjo (Mallikajaan's foster daughter), Sanjeedha as Waheeda (Mallika's younger sister), Fareeda as Qudisa Begam (Tajdaar's grand mother), Indresh as Ustaad.

In early 1920s, Rehana sells Mallikajaan's newborn son, and in turn Mallikajaan kills Rehana, sells off Fareedan and takes over Shahi Mahal. After two decades, Mallikajaan wants Alamzeb to take over the reign from her. On the contrary, Alam is interested in poetry and aspires to become a poetess against her mother's wish. Tajdaar, a foreign returned advocate (and son of a hotelier) joins the freedom struggle along with a group of activists (secretly supported by Bibbojaan). Alam and Taj meet accidentally at a poet's meet and Taj falls for her without knowing she is from Heeramandi. 

Meanwhile Fareedan enters Heeramandi to seek revenge against Mallikajaan for murdering her mother. With the new entrant, the dynamics change in Heeramandi. Fareedan's new business tactics and her groundwork to reopen Rehana's murder case, challenges Mallikajaan's supremacy. To counter attack Fareedan, Mallikajaan calls for early retirement of Bibbo and announces the debut of Alamzeb. Alamzeb runs away with the help of Fareedan to Tajdaar. As Tajdaar's father opposes their relationship, they decide to get married. In the twist of events, British officers arest Alamzeb, kill Tajdaar and humiliate and assault Mallikajaan. Heartbroken, Mallika offers her position and possessions to Fareedan. Fareedan regrets her wrong deeds and joins hands with Mallikajaan to participate in the freedom struggle. The series ends as Mallikajaan and her accompanies march towards the place where Bibbojaan is executed.

Heeramandi, the epic couldn't have been told so magnificently and elegantly other than Sanjay Leela Bhansali. This is a very tricky story, which runs on a thin line, between elegance and vulgarity, if lost balance, it would have turned obscene. As a creator known for the grandeur of his creations, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has spell his magic yet again. The narration, the rivalry between lead roles, scheming against each other, the political subplot, the sets, costumes, music, dance and most importantly his choice of artists is simply outstanding. 

Mallikajaan's character is so headstrong and heartless and at the same time very tender; she is so corrupt and deceitful, and does anything to achieve what she wants, yet very vulnerable. No one other than Manisha Koirala would have played the role brilliantly. Many a times, she reminded Rekhaji's Umrao Jaan. Manisha put up such an impeccable performance, anyone would just keep watching her. Undoubtedly, she is the show stealer. My next favourite from the series is Bibbojaan - Aditi. Even her eyes spoke volumes and her performance has been so elegant and graceful, in such an amazing character which was the axle that kept everything and everyone intact. 

I came across many negative remarks about the artists who played the key characters - Alam and Taj. In fact, it was indeed a little off in the introductory scenes of the duo, but as the story gained momentum, the choice of artists felt apt. I guess the director didn't want to give the characters centerstage and wanted to show a subtle form of romance between them, instead of the usual bubbly teenage romance. I felt they fit the bill. Alam, a person who is supposedly reserved, an young girl who dreamt about her future and lived within her boundaries, Sharmin, her acting, her diction and even the singer who sang her lines - everything aligned so well. Another key character that makes you feel for, is Waheeda. As the youngest and most ignored sibling, she tries her best in all possible ways to make her mark, but fails miserably every time and Sanjeeda was tremendous in this role. Somehow I felt Sanjeeda outshined Sonakshi. 

One major setback in this series is its ending. The story that was well built thus far and kept the audience glued in anticipation of what happens next, suddenly loses its momentum. Out of nowhere, Mallikajaan and her accompanies get so deep into freedom struggle. The director could have portrayed the sudden turn of events, even if it took another episode. Otherwise Heeramandi is indeed a beautifully crafted piece of Heera (Diamond)!!

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