Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar is imaginative take on past reality

Manisha Koirala in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

Intrigues unlimited, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and complex emotions: Heeremandi: The Diamond Bazaar has it all. All this wrapped in a typical Sanjay Leela Bhansali package of extravagant sets, some tradition-flavored music and a tinge of cinematic exaggeration. Mentioning the end here would be a spoiler, but suffice to say there that it is presented in true-blue Bhansali style!

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s web debut, based on a story by Moin Beg, follows the filmmaker’s template of exorbitant budgets and songs backing an intense human tale of passions, malefic deeds and selfless actions, this last perpetuated here largely by India’s struggle for Independence. Unlike many of his early sagas, and just like Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat and Gangubai Kathiawadi, this story is set in a definite place and timeframe, and the real Heeramandi of Lahore gets a cinematic fictional twist.

The real Heera Mandi (as named then) was a cultural and artistic epicenter of Lahore. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s conquest of the city lead to Hira Singh Dogra, his prime minister, convert a prime area, Shahi Mohallah, into a grain market. It was known as “Hira Singh di Mandi” that later became “Heera Mandi”. It soon evolved into a cultural hub, attracting courtesans from various regions who showcased their mastery over classical music and dance. These performances were a celebration of the rich cultural heritage that thrived then under the patronage of the rulers and the affluent nobility of those times,

The courtesans, or tawaifs, were more than just entertainers, and represented culture and sophistication. Trained in the fine arts, they were poets, musicians and dancers, and played a pivotal role in the social and cultural life of the Mughal courts. As stated in a Times of India feature, “Their salons were centers of intellectual gatherings, where politics, poetry and philosophy were discussed as much as they were places of musical and dance performances.”

Several of courtesans left a distinct mark on the cultural and social fabric of the subcontinent then. Begum Samru went on to rule the principality of Sardhana in western Uttar Pradesh. Moran Sarkar married Maharaja Ranjit Singh and is remembered for her influence in his court. Waziran was patronized by Lucknow’s last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, and played a significant role in the cultural life of the city. Begum Hazrat Mahal, the first wife of Wajid Ali Shah, was a key figure in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Gauhar Jaan, a classical singer, has the distinction of being India’s first-ever recorded voice on HMV in 1902. Zohrabai Agrewali was known for her contributions to classical music and for being a part of the rich tradition of tawaifs in the country. Heera Mandi also gave us cinema stars like Noor Jahan (Lata Mangeshkar’s inspiration) and Mumtaz Shanti (Kismet / 1943). Today a mere shadow of what it was, it is a market by day and a red-light district by night, preserving only fragments of its colorful past.

As the report says, “These women were not just entertainers; they were educators, influencers, and sometimes revolutionaries who played a pivotal role in shaping the history of their era.”

Despite its association with the area’s women, admired for their beauty, British colonization and Victorian conservatism led to the demise of the arts, which is an angle not depicted here as the British are shown being enticed by the tawaifs here for pleasures of the flesh.

Beg’s and Bhansali’s characters are cleverly derived and modified from such real characters with a necessary dramatic metamorphosis. Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) is the chief courtesan of Heeramandi, the Queen, so to speak. Her sister, Rehana (Sonakshi Sinha) quietly sells off Mallikajaan’s newborn son to a nawab. In a rage, Mallikajaan kills her in cahoots with her flame, Nawab Zulfiqar (Shekhar Suman).

Years later, Mallikajaan’s now grown-up illegitimate son, Zoravar (Adhyayan Suman), tells Lajjo (Mallikajjan’s foster-daughter, who is in love with him) to perform at his wedding. Lajjo is heartbroken and dies of excessive drink. And around this time, Rehana’s grown-up daughter, Fareedajaan (Sonakshi again), returns to Heeramandi and pledges to ruin Mallikajaan and also make sure that she is punished for murdering her mother.

Mallikajaan’s daughter, Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal), is the apple of her eye, but she wishes to become a poet and not be initiated into the traditional profession. Her falling in love with Nawab Tajdar (Taaha Shah Badussha) further catalyzes a clash with her mother and she soon runs away from home, and Fareedajaan has a manipulative role here as well.

Alamzeb has the full support of her elder sister, Bibbojan (Aditi Roy Hydari). Bibbojaan is an idealist of sorts and is an integral part of the freedom revolutionaries in Lahore, even patronizing the British law forces to get key information about their moves.

Tajdar soon joins the revolutionaries and decides to marry Alamzeb against the wishes of his family. Fareedajaan has a dubious role to play here as well, but her mission to trap Mallikajaan for murder is countered by Nawab Zulfikar’s evidence about Fareedajaan’s own carefully-concealed dubious past.

A key player is Waheeda (Sanjeeda Sheikh), Mallikajaan’s youngest sister, who zigzags between Mallikajaan and Fareedajaan but is always betrayed by the former and then insulted by the latter as well. As the freedom struggle intensifies, and the British who patronize Bibbojaan and Fareedajaan get more and more entangled in the machinations, and have their own as well, things rise to a crescendo that is best watched rather than narrated.

In deft creative strokes, Bhansali paints on a canvas inspired by the real Heera Mandi  by showing the courtesans’ rich lifestyle, their arrogance and the attitude of the nawabs, and etches his characters sharply, especially about their kaleidoscopic motivations. Some may deplore the resources (Rs. 20 billion, we hear!!) spent on the production of this classic tale of romance (as defined in 19th and early 20th century sagas!) on its sets, costumes and (now) VFX, but to re-create the atmosphere and augment the emotional voltage, all this upscale mounting was inarguably needed.

The music is apt but does not rise to SLB’s past levels, and tends to be repetitious in the construction of the songs. Obviously the camerawork is superb (Sudeep Chatterjee, Mahesh Limaye, Huenstang Mohapatra and Ragul Dharuman) and so is the production design (Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray). We cannot find fault with Bhansali’s necessarily placid editing either, and Naren Chandavarkar’s and Benedict Taylor’s background score is as per the project’s scale (pun not intended).

The script is quite riveting despite the near 8-hour length and the dialogues (Vibhu Puri, Divya Nidhi Sharma) quite lifelike all told. And as always, Bhansali has a tight grip on his characters and the performers who essay them.

Richa Chadha as Lajjo in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar. Photo: Publicis-Consultants Asia

I, for one, was most impressed by Sanjeeda Sheikh, the seasoned TV actor, in the role of the aggrieved Waheeda. She is brilliant in her angst and hurt and her searing eyes speak volumes indeed. In her brief role as Laddo, Richa Chadha scores high too, and her vocal delivery and eyes synergize very well in the emotional graph of her character. Footage-wise, she does not have much to do, but she is terrific.

Bhansali gives his first heroine, Manisha Koirala (Khamoshi—The Musical and also, 1942—A Love Story, in which he made his debut as choreographer) a truly meaty role as Mallikajaan, and she excels as the ever-smiling-and-suddenly-stern courtesan who is also totally ruthless.

Bhansali’s (production) Rowdy Rathore’s leading lady, Sonakshi Sinha, scores in a dual role as the scheming Fareedajaan, though as Rehana, she hardly has a part. Though a vengeful daughter, her character is far from being white and is truly devious.

Aditi Roy Hydari is in full fettle as Bibbojaan, and proves that she can truly score in a well-written role. However, the major anticlimax is Sharmin Sehgal as Alamzeb. This lady really needs to work on her acting skills, facial expressions and overall impression. Her meaty role and the script make her sail over her deficiencies this time, but if she has to make a mark outside Bhansali domain (she is his niece), she needs to do something about it pronto!

Taaha Shah Babussha’s performance as Tajdar is a shade affected and he could have been more effortless in his performance. At one level, the love story between Tajdar and Alamzeb forms the pivot of the plot and stronger essays were needed.

The men get second shrift, though I was again impressed by Rajat Kaul as Balli. The Britishers shown tend to be stereotypes, and the much-publicized comeback of Fardeen Khan as Wali Mohammed is so much hype about nothing. The Sumans—father Shekhar and son Adhyayan, are alright. The rest of the cast is good.

For me, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar is a project to be taken for what its intentions are, and to enjoy a classic Bhansali buffet spread of lavish, delectable entertainment.








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