Heeramandi review — is there anything beyond the glitz, glam and fairy dust?

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's newest Netflix offering is an opulent depiction of Lahore's famed Heeramandi but there was something missing.
08 May, 2024

Within the fabric of Lahore’s walled city lies a historically rich tapestry — stories of tawaifs etched in the sand, reminders of dance against the clink of chooris and renditions of various versions of womanhood.

Opulence is probably the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the new Netflix show Heeramandi. Sanjay Leela Bhansali ticks all the aesthetic boxes — the show immediately reels you into a fantastical Mughal rendering of spacious mansions, intricate outfits and dreamy lighting. Past the elaborate and maximalist world-building, I found myself deeply immersed in this world and yet, I wasn’t constantly engaged. I was searching for a story that didn’t fully take flight. This could have been a story that shifted the narrative when we look back at the history of Heeramandi.

Of course, creative direction deserves its due, but there were too many things that didn’t work and for an audience looking for a story, it isn’t so easy to be distracted by “oneiric”. Watching the series was meant to be a portal into the past of Heeramandi and yet, it fell short. Of course, historical fiction comes with room for liberties, creative direction, aesthetic shifts and more but at its core, the show lacks storytelling. Initially, the plot geared us for introspection into the lives of the tawaifs of Heeramandi which swerves towards a Ram-Leela-level love affair and spirals into a Devdas-style revolution.

The women

That’s not to say Bhansali didn’t do a lot right, the women of Heeramandi carry the narrative (minus our nepo baby Sharmin Segal who plays Alamzeb). Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) resides as the Huzoor (Madam) of Shahi Mahal — she would live and die for the women of Heeramandi. She is fierce, unforgiving and relentless; her acting carries the show.

Bibojaan (played by Aditi Rao Hydari), Mallikajaan’s daughter, is a rebel passionate about revolution. Her beauty resounds on the screen and while the eyebrow lift is jarring, her character arc is one I could get behind. From her revered mujras to her late-night escapades with the revolutionaries, Bibojaan becomes the heroine of this story.

Alamzeb, also Mallikajaan’s daughter, dreams of being a poet and leaving the shackles of her destined future as a tawaif. She meets the dreamy nawab, Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha) and falls quickly and deeply for him. Their love story is cruel, dramatic and honestly, a little bit too on-the-nose. She reads him verses laced with a forced Urdu and passion that just didn’t hit the mark. While we do have mentions of Ghalib and Niazi, in a story that was meant to centralise the women of Lahore, we don’t hear of Amrita Pritam or Ismat Chughtai whose works highlight the plight of marginalised women.

Then, we have Fareedan (daughter of Rehana, who was murdered by Mallikajaan). Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha) is ferocious, harsh and out to avenge her mother’s death, destroy Mallika and gain control of Shahi Mahal. Her growth over the episodes was expansive and cultivated into the comraderie that always makes for a happy ending. She rules the screen, her sharp eyebrows and thirst for power awaken the story. Who doesn’t love a good anti-hero?

The history

Historically, Heeramandi was a place that taught artistic prowess. Here lies a community of woman who are the bearers of art, dance and music. Here lies a community of women known as the Queens of Lahore — they are the gatekeepers of craft, revered guardians of refined manners and aim to pass down their knowledge.

The women were empowered to make their own choices and it was only after the onset of the British Raj when nawab culture was overthrown that Heeramandi became a home for sex workers. It was a crux of cultural heritage, where people came to appreciate and learn the power of dance, music and poetry.

“Both the hereditary and newly trained tawa’ifs strategically deployed their shared identity as skilled performers to rise in social status vis-à-vis their power dynamic with the patrons. Apart from their artistic expertise, an essential aspect of their culture was the secret ‘art of nakhra, or pretence’ that they deployed to exploit wealthy patrons.” (Oldenburg, 1990, p. 274).

The courtesans were respected and played an integral role in the preservation of the arts. In some artistic circles today, there is still talk of the enrichment that was passed down from the Mughal era (through Heeramandi).

And while pieces of this history are entwined in the story, the sad reality is the lack of the raw oppression of these spaces shown in Heeramandi. It almost seems to be glamourised by fairy dust where the oppression never reaches the light — the khalas and aapas and ammis of Heeramandi are decked in jewels and lavish clothes and the suffering that should have soaked the narrative is overly glamorised.

The perfection that emanates from the walls of Heeramandi is almost uncomfortable. While patrons of art, their destinies are tied to the Nawabs of Lahore. They bring the money, the jewels, the luxury. It’s a tale as old as time — women’s fates controlled by the men around them. While outwardly queens, there is a constant reminder of the misery that walks within each of their souls. The magical realism of the sets and costumes do not make up for the filmy dialogue, melodramatic poetry and lack of plot — these women have stories to tell but they seem chained to a narrative that does not want to tell it.

The sounds of the ghungroo form an eerie score for the show — a Heeramandi woman adorns her ghungroo once she has had her debut as a tawaif. Bhansali highlights the sublime, yet sweeping over the human experience to make it transcendental and evocative acts as an erasure of important stories; the plight of the women of Heeramandi (their pain, their living conditions), the Muslims living in the Subcontinent (their disconnect is confusing) and the language (the poor pronunciation and lack of fluidity of dialogue).

Body politics in tawaif culture

In a lot of fiction, the body is used as a metaphor for society. And Bhansali’s period drama is no different. There was room to delve into the body politics of 1940s India and comment on the lives of the tawaifs — the overarching male gaze on one hand, the ability to speak freely of sexuality on another — where does the conversation lead? There is a layered focus on desire within the story and while the tawaifs themselves have their own desires, we only see the one reflected back to us through the male gaze.

During this period, the arts were deeply connected to social class and identity (the courtesans and creators on one hand and the entertained on the other) — a transactional relationship that was steeped in the fabric of society. Music and dance act as tools to create communities and the tawaifs played a large role in that — one that must not be brushed over. Music became a part of the social construction of identity at the time and yet the show doesn’t seem to aid that narrative. Maybe Bhansali wanted to create a story that appealed to a greater audience but let’s not forget that women are the backbone of every form of creation. The tawaifs and their journeys will not be forgotten, no matter the glamour used to doll it up.

Every story about a woman is a story of resistance. The end of the series was beautiful and powerful and probably one of the few scenes that left an imprint on me. The closing narration: “Like birds in gilded cages, these tawaifs knew the value of freedom…But a woman’s struggle never ends” served as the perfect culmination to a series that relied so heavily upon being perfect. And while Heeramandi explored a facet of that resistance, it too remained akin to a bird in a gilded cage, never truly showing us the cost of freedom.


Taj Ahmad May 08, 2024 11:25am
All women’s around the world must be respected by all men’s.
pervez siddiqui May 08, 2024 11:43am
excellent comments
pervez siddiqui May 08, 2024 11:46am
I like your comments which are all quite appropriate. I had similar thoughts
Chax May 08, 2024 12:53pm
Taj Ahmad angrezi nahi aati tau mat bol. Women's aur men's kuch nahi hota
Uturn May 08, 2024 12:55pm
What else were you expecting from Bhansali?
Aamir May 08, 2024 02:23pm
Bhansali did a good job depicting the era. This was a fiction and entertaining.
Ram Babu May 08, 2024 03:18pm
Didn't come up to expectations.
Jin May 08, 2024 03:35pm
I agree, lacklustre story and a lot of creative liberties. Nepo baby was the worst, annunciation and acting felt forced. Infact Punjabi and Urdu were both butchered and honestly have some real depiction or try to. It was as if it was lukhnow- what makes heeramandi different than bazar-e-husn anywhere in “india” Also in 1940s sorry, you’d be hard pressed to find Indian flag - but let’s give them this creative liberties. Political statements aside, it was lop sided story that had no real arc .
Steve May 08, 2024 03:39pm
"I found myself deeply immersed in this world and yet, I wasn’t constantly engaged." Well said. Both you and I didn’t connect with this Heeramandi story, even though I watched all ten episodes and paid close attention to every detail. While the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is known to make melodramatic, soapy dramas that unfold on the big screen in a kaleidoscope of colors, and flowery languages and symbols, this time he has gone seriously overboard. The fakeness is apparent from the start, and nothing else would convince you that things are even remotely believable. Let’s forget about the idea of “tawaif” culture. It didn’t really exist in the past, neither in Lahore nor in Delhi or Agra, except in the imaginations of some poets and singers from the 18th and 19th centuries. They might have created a false image of that decaying environment for their own gain. The sad truth is that children were the biggest victims of these places as is trie for brothels everywhere - both female and male. Further, a variety of cruel sexual experiments would be undertaken, as described by Richard Burton in his Orientalist books. In fact, in the very first episode of this series, there are several mentions of this brutality, and the K-word was used liberally, which I didn't find very funny. Moreover, places like Heeramandi were filled with unpleasant smells from pit latrine toilets, bodily fluids, tobacco smoke, and alcohol. Running water wasn’t available in the subcontinent during that time. Elaborate palaces were rare, and most areas were overcrowded. Quacks sold funny aphrodisiacs and potency formulas around Heeramandi. Even though such things are banned by law in India, traditional “dawakhanas” still sell antique medicines to unsuspecting people. I believe it’s cruel and wrong to romanticize decaying places like Heera Mandi for personal pleasure. Movies about such areas should focus on documentary-style storytelling, aiming to raise awareness and help those trapped in poverty and difficult professions. Instead of enjoying their misery, we should empathize with them. Whether in India, Pakistan, or any other country, I hope as few people as possible watch this series. Such exploitation cannot be good entertainment.
Amna May 08, 2024 04:12pm
Aamir about 2 hours ago Bhansali did a good job depicting the era. This was a fiction and entertaining. Recommend 1 Reply Which Era is depicted? Art has room for exaggeration , visual effects but he has not depicted any era apart from a fancy and ridiculous made up version of a time period.
Shaheen Pirzada May 08, 2024 10:05pm
After watching Heeramandi I was in awe at the visuals, beauty of presentation, depiction of the culture but could not tell what was missing , on reading your review I got all my answers, totally agree, deserves 3 stars and misses more appreciation for the shortcomings you point out
Jamil Soomro May 08, 2024 11:55pm
Historically through various stories trickling down that the Nawabs of India used to send their children to Tawaifs to learn culture. I have always wondered if true what "kind" of culture was imparted by the Tawaifs to them.?
Emily May 09, 2024 12:24am
@ TAJ AHMAD: you meant all Sharons and Emmas to be respected by all Dicks and Harrys
Gurpreet Singh May 09, 2024 01:12am
Anyone expecting more from Bhansali are probably not familiar with his previous work. Its mostly all style and very less substance.
Hamza May 09, 2024 02:16am
Let’s just be fair,Bhansali took a story of our history and now everyone knows about heera mandi.None of our directors and producers have tried to tell a story of such place in such great view.It was a good watch and songs were great especially the Sakai ban.The plot was week but overall the experience was good.
Waseem May 09, 2024 04:00am
I don't agree with your thoughts. This is one of the best series I have watched after so many years. History of Heera mandi and its role in independence movement is such a delightful watch. Azadi song near the end was so emotional.
P Kumar May 09, 2024 07:36am
This article and below comments are one of the reason why art isn't flourishing in Pakistan, particularly when I hear comments like I wish as few people see it.. The story of heeramandi in third series was told between 1920 to 1940, so not sure how Bhansali could have referenced Anrita Pritam who was born in 1919 and had her initial works published only in 1943. The criticism is valid but only to the point isn't not exaggerated. Chill people. Bhansali never promised a documentary or history lesson. He has painted and reimagined the era his way. If he was to stick to history, he could have shown how heeramandi was set up by a Sikh to promote Kathak, how that was indeed converted into tawaif culture by mughals and subsequently brits.
AGHA PASHA May 09, 2024 10:15am
Good effort by writer and Director, viz a viz all women hailing from East or West deserve love, affection and respect .
Azaad Sher May 09, 2024 10:32am
Well written review. In reality, the era of Heeramandi and those times also had a complete Muslim Hindu Sikh unity on many aspects of language, art and political aspirations. There was very little divide socially. Also, many players in that era, came from across this spectrum. Urdu abs Panjabiyat were paramount, yet most people there did not speak the Lucknow imported Urdu. So, let's give Bhansali a break. One sees terrible accents and pronunciations and the sad murder of Urdu across Pakistani elite.
Rushada May 09, 2024 12:05pm
never truly showing us the cost of nailed it by adding these words in the last.
Anuj Sitamgarh May 09, 2024 02:23pm
@Azaad Sher I second your opinion.
Hamza H May 09, 2024 05:26pm
I find it amusing when people showcase their knowledge by fact-checking art, but art isn't meant to be a literal retelling. heeramandi an exaggerated blend of key themes like womanhood, power, resistance, and survival. the series portray the weaknesses of nawabs, the deceitful nature of the british, and pays homage to freedom movement patriots. it earns 5/5 stars for its entertainment value and presenting the crux of the matter.
Son of B.imran May 09, 2024 08:40pm
Loved it and would definitely recommend to all my friends and relatives in lahore.
Son of B.imran May 09, 2024 08:45pm
Better than true history. In reality, these places were breeding ground for deadly diseases.
Bluesky May 10, 2024 02:19am
All that money spent on making such a decorative piece dazzling with its costumes and sets but such little effort at story screenplay and authenticity. Typical Bhansali and the actress , his niece - is terrible.
P. Nag May 10, 2024 07:03am
A visual treat, superb music, glitzy set design, superb performance no doubt. But overall, SLB brought out decommissioned actors like, Fardeen Khan, Adhyayan Sumon and out of circulation actors like Sonakshi, Richa, Manisha to show their skills, even almost retired Fareeda Jalal and forgotten Anju Mahendru were enrolled. The much forgotten contribution of Women of 'ill' repute in freedom struggle was just a spice in SLB cooking. Tajdar remains charming till end. So was Alamjeb, with only expression in the whole series.
Anil May 10, 2024 09:18pm
Lacks colours , all colours are monotonous, dark :- all dark scenes , it’s dragging
Shakir May 11, 2024 10:27am
"Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films are known for their grand lighting, beautiful dresses, and stunning jewelry, much like a perfectly crafted recipe. Great job! However, the movie would have been even more impressive if he had focused a bit more on the Urdu."
Sharjeel Syed May 13, 2024 11:21am
I have started watching the series. What a classic piece of work. People may have their opinion, but I simply loved the way film making is done. Everything seems to be in place. Just loved it.