Heeramandi: Dazzles with Stellar Performances, Visual Grandeur

By Dhaval Roy

Story: Set in the 1920s, the series is about a group of tawaifs (courtesans) from the red-light district, Heeramandi, in Lahore. While their queen’s reign is threatened by a rival, rebellion brews in British-ruled India. And love blossoms between a tawaif and a Nawab.

Review: Evoking the allure and bewitching world of tawaifs (courtesans) demands a deft yet delicate touch. After all, they were celebrated for their ethereal beauty, wit, charm, poetry, and tehzeeb. In his OTT debut, which is nothing short of grand, Sanjay Leela Bhansali skilfully immerses viewers in a saga of love, rivalry, betrayal, power play, and revolution.

This is the story of Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala), called huzoor for reigning the elite Shahi Mahal with an iron fist. As she deals with a rebellious daughter, Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal), who refuses to become a courtesan, her queendom is threatened by a harbinger of doom and vengeance, Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha). The eight-part series follows their rivalry and its collateral damage, including Mallikajaan’s elder daughter, Bibbo (Aditi Rao Hydari), younger sister Waheeda (Sanjeeda Sheikh), and Alam’s love interest Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha). The premise is set against India’s freedom struggle and the decline of tawaifs.

Bhansali bequeaths the glory to tawaifs that they rightly deserve, giving them agency and shining the light on their pivotal role in India’s Independence. And he does so while weaving in a familiar theme — star-crossed lovers. The show’s highlight, however, is the cinematic and visually rich milieu, which is quintessential Bhansali. Yards of luxurious curtains, meticulously crafted costumes adorned with jewels, and the grace of tawaifs dancing in warmly lit kothas — all captured in long, sweeping shots, transport one to the regal world of 1920s Lahore. Sudeep Chatterjee, Mahesh Limaye, and Huentsang Mohapatra’s cinematography shines through here. Bhansali excels in music direction, with the most melodious yet melancholic thumris and ghazals.

While visually stunning, Heeramandi stumbles in its pacing. The hour-long episodes feel drawn out until mid-season due to a large cast and numerous intertwined storylines. As the narrative gets intermittently confusing, viewers may find their attention wavering. The show has the nuance, flair, drama, and aesthetic that make every Bhansali offering a spectacle, but the story and screenplay (by Bhansali and Divy Nidhi Sharma) could have been sharper and more compelling.

Manisha Koirala delivers a career-defining performance as Mallikajaan. She transitions between a fiery courtesan and a vulnerable mother, captivating with her beauty that can even be menacing and monstrous. She and Sonakshi Sinha enthrall as bitter rivals, mirroring each other’s strength and grace. Sanjeeda Sheikh delivers a moving performance, and her emotional range shines through. Sharmin Segal brings a refreshing innocence that offsets the show’s harsher characters. Taha Shah Badussha is good as a passionate young lover and revolutionary. Richa Chadha leaves a lasting impression with her impactful performance. And finally, Aditi Rao Hydari embodies ethereal beauty while delivering a powerful performance, solidifying the show’s strong ensemble cast.

The supporting cast delivers equally impressive performances. Fardeen Khan makes a strong impact as Nawab Wali Mohammad, while Shekhar Suman and Adhyayan Suman portray the menacing and spoilt nawabs with aplomb. Farida Jalal brings warmth as the endearing Begum Qudsia, and Jayati Bhatia impresses as Mallikajaan’s loyal servant.

Heeramandi, overall, might feel like a long watch, but the cinematic experience will linger on long after its conclusion. And like every Bhansali project, this one, too, throbs with passion and creativity, leaving you mesmerised by the sights and sounds. — Times of India