Heeramandi review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's OTT debut falls short of his midas touch!

Sakshi Sharma
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Heeramandi review

Heeramandi review

Despite being created by the maverick filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Heeramandi seems to be craving his magical power and might to weave a narrative that leaves a lasting impression!

A larger-than-life drama where every frame reeks of poetry and a grand opulence spectacle to be remembered for ages is the brand of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. This is why you don’t just expect him to deliver on this promise, it’s what you sign up for! He makes you enter a world so grand and interwoven that when you come out of it, your reality seems bleak and bland. On that account, Heeramandi charmingly seduces you with its spell-binding visual spectacle and enigmatic tawaifs but it isn’t enough. Because, at the end of the day, style and beauty are not substitute for substance and this eight-episode aches for more! 

Based on the fables by Moin Beg and set during the pre-independence era, this series is a glance into the daily lives of the most potent figurines of Lahore who dominated the hearts of Nawabs. It’s like looking inside the lanes of Lahore’s red-light district area inhabited by its queens, from the outside. In Heeramandi, courtesans don’t walk, they glide; they don’t dance, they perform; they don’t talk, they throw metaphors and they don’t read poetry, they ooze it. They are ethereal, beautiful creatures embroidered in out of the world costumes that embody grace, sensuality, passion, and everything woman. And parallelly, through them, we see a contrast of the loss of identity as the befall of the tawaifan culture comes with the country's sinking at the hand of the Britishers. It's all there - the power tussle, betrayals, sacrifices, tragic love stories, and the unity in fighting for freedom. But unfortunately, it doesn’t mount to something!  

Beauty trapped in tragedy is the signature style of SLB! His touch of grandness and beautification of everything always hides a deeper, more poetic meaning. Similarly, here, every tawaif, a glorious shiny diamond carved through pain, is scarred in their own ways as if they're laced with the irony of being a tawaif; they're free but in chains! Shahi Mahal’s Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) and Khwabgah’s Faradeen (Sonakshi Sinha) are fiery women at loggerheads with each other, trying to upscale and avenge one another. Yet they've both been burnt by familial betrayals, just like Waheeda (Sanjeeda Sheikh), who bears the scars of the same deceit on her face. On the contrary, this fiery attitude finds a different course in Mallikajaan's daughters; Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari), a mysteriously desirable beauty, harbors a secret of being a rebel seeking the country’s freedom, while Alamzeb (Sharmin Sehgal Mehta), the young, innocent lamb living in her world of poetry, seeks love beyond the reach of a tawaif. And then there is Lajjo (Richa Chadha), a wounded soul who only found thorns in love. 

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SLB's works can be literally divided into phases—the doomed love story with Devdas and Hum Dil Chuke Sanam, grief of life with Black, Saawariya, Guzaarish and colorful period dramas with Ram Leela, Bajirao Mastani, and Padmavat. Together with Gangubai Kathiawadi, all of them seem to culminate to form Heeramandi. It is as if each film seems to have led SLB to this long-form narrative! But despite the essence and references reigning in familiarity and factual history getting revamped into stylized fiction, the lack of coherence in the script and uneven pacing of the show starts too slow and is rushed towards the end, which makes it challenging to sit through. Even though SLB has stretched himself beyond the straightforward and concise form of films that just focus on protagonists, this series demands more character development and depth in the story. 

The lack of writing is covered beautifully by the technicians including the four cinematographers and two set and costume designers who bring SLB’s vision alive through jaw-dropping visuals. Each frame is like a ballad where the mirror, camera, and costume become a reflection and a metaphor, but not for long! After a point, the shortfalls start to show, leading the dramatic flair of the series towards being a caricature-like soap opera staged with overacting. Aditi Rao Hydari shines the brightest in this ensemble cast and Manisha Koirala and Sonakshi Sinha have their many moments. Even Sanjeeda Sheikh and Richa Chadha deliver in their 'more of a cameo' roles. But Sharmin Sehgal Mehta's stone-cold face is unable to find the delicate balance between 'innocent and naive' and 'stupid and naive'. And even though in this world of women, it’s interesting to see the men being reduced to their gender archetype, they could still do more than they were given! The saving grace of this show is supporting actors like Farida Jalal and others who essay the role of the house help. 

From the trailer, I thought Heeramandi would have been about furthering the idea of sex workers seen in Gangubai Kathiawadi. But after watching the series, especially the end, it feels like this is a prequel in the much larger narrative of the sex workers that have always been a part of SLB films. The fight of women to be recognized as human beings and not disrespected, fought by all of SLB’s heroines, found their base at the fall of Heeramandi’s tawafis. But unlike Gangubai, Mastani, Chandramukhi, and others, these tawaifs can’t make a lasting impact. With their lamenting music and mujras, they can seduce but they just aren't able to make you stay! Because they cannot go beyond the metaphor of a caged beauty to layer the narrative which talks about finding freedom in the pain and glory of being a woman. And I, for one, was definitely seeking more from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s resurrection of tawaifs as goddesses.

Heeramdandi: The Diamond Bazaar is currently streaming on Netflix!

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