Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s eight-episode Netflix series shows that he is a filmmaker far more comfortable in depicting the illusion of women’s strength rather than a display of it

In a career spanning 30 years and 10 films, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the multi-hyphenate director, editor, music composer, and visual stylist, has turned his brand of cinema into an adjective. His films capture a distinct mood rather than a period, its storytelling dependent on the beauty that embellishes it. Indeed, the Bhansaliverse is a stand-in for a spellbinding tapestry of baroque architecture, graceful women held caged by cruel spells of fate and chance, and grandiose set pieces lensed with such painstaking detail that they have beauty and the hint of violence dripping from every inch of it.

Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, the eight-episode Netflix series that marks Bhansali’s streaming debut, is culled from the same cloth. Set in 1945 Lahore, the show revolves around two generations of a courtesan family who run an elite brothel and wield considerable social and political influence over besotted nawabs and British officers looking to challenge their authority. The contours of a historical drama has regularly offered Bhansali a fertile canvas to indulge his vivid imagination and the eight episodes of Heeramandi, running upwards of eight hours, naturally double the stakes on that front. Beauty is ethereal and omnipresent in every frame of the show, perfected to such manicured beauty that it dazzles.

Opulence that distracts

And yet, it is this expected opulence that feels unbearably restrictive considering Bhansali doesn’t exactly invent as much as he distills down the highlights from his greatest hits. There is a sameness that permeates the frames that turns the glittering beauty upside down, making it appear dull and lifeless. Worse still, in the absence of a competent screenplay, Bhansali’s signature grandeur comes across like a distraction, a means to an end, which if anything, reveals the glaring weaknesses in the filmmaker’s storytelling agility. In that, Heeramandi comes undone by Bhansali’s all-consuming obsession with elegance.

Heeramandi is not the first time that Bhansali has chosen to train his gaze on courtesans. Indeed, the tragic duality of the lives of tawaifs and sex workers has often cropped up in his oeuvre, right from Chandramukhi in Devdas (2002) and Gulabji in Saawariya (2007) to Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), his last outing. The Alia Bhatt-led film even began with Begum Akhtar’s voice crooning Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat,” a nod to Akhtari bai, the courtesan figure who turned herself into the renowned singer and actress Begum Akhtar, following her marriage to a reputable barrister. Still, the show marks the first time that Bhansali has chosen to thoroughly immerse his narrative into courtesan culture. If in his earlier work, courtesans remained a peripheral figure in the storytelling, then it is in Heeramandi that they come of age.

Created, directed, edited, and co-written by Bhansali, who is also credited as the show’s music composer, Heeramandi’s inter-generational character study is foregrounded by the rivalry between Mallikajaan (a steely Manisha Koirala), the punishing madam of Shahi Mahal and her calculated niece Fareedanjaan (a standout Sonakshi Sinha), intent on exacting revenge for her mother’s tragic death. Caught in the line of firing then, are Waheeda jaan (Sanjeeda Shaikh), Mallikajaan’s sister and her two daughters Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) and Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal Mehta), who each struggle to find their own bearings outside their identities as courtesans. Running parallel to the character studies of these women and the fault lines in their relationship with each other, is a doomed love-story that develops between Alamzeb and Tajdar (Taha Shah), the Oxford-returned heir of an aristocratic family. As betrayals and losses loom in the background, so do the rising calls for an independent India as a group of revolutionaries secretly plan to overpower the British raj.

Compromised vision elevates emptiness

As is natural with a show of this scale, the storytelling of Heeramandi hinges on several disparate threads. Action, or the threat of it, always looms large, whether it is sudden deaths, acts of double-crossing, court cases, or a grotesque act of violation. But the show’s helmers (which include the team of co-writers and the long list of additional, associate, and assistant directors) frequently struggle to keep track of all of these threads, much less develop them to a satisfactory culmination. At any given point in any episode, there always seems to be too much going on and yet, all of these proceedings feel unbearably insignificant to the larger storytelling. Much of that is also because the pacing is constantly uneven, further marred by the stilted dialogue and the underwhelming acting turns that range from wooden (Segal is especially stiff in almost all of her scenes) to over-the-top.

Alia Bhatt as Gangubai Kathiawadi

Alia Bhatt as Gangubai Kathiawadi

What feels especially frustrating is the half-baked detours that the wafer-thin screenplay is occasionally prone to taking at crucial junctures, whether that is a wrongful incarceration of a loyal Shahi Mahal servant or the invention of a track, including Waheeda’s daughter (Pratibha Ranta, last seen in Laapata Ladies) that shows promise but ends up heading nowhere. Even the constant face-offs between Mallikajaan and Alastair Cartwright (Jason Shah), the villainous British officer, loses steam quickly.

In fact, Heeramandi’s screenplay issues are central to its lack of any emotional resonance. Multiple wars are waged on hearts of men, bodies of women, and the land that they both inhabit without it necessarily appearing moving or consequential. The emptiness is elevated by the show’s compromised vision — it does justice neither as a historical drama that examines the lives and times of courtesans who flourished during the Mughal era and greatly contributed to music, theatre, and dance traditions of the time nor as a thrilling account of the often-overlooked part that subcontinent’s courtesans played during India’s long-drawn out freedom struggle against the British.

Women as sacrificial lambs

Over the last 30 years of Bhansali period epics, one thing is for certain: historical accuracy isn’t something that we have come to expect from him. This is a filmmaker who instead uses history as a narrative device, a canvas that can contain the existence of his vivid universes. But even when you take out any expectations of historical accuracy, Heeramandi falls apart in its commitment to an apolitical, vague world that is rooted in no factual detail or logic. Take for instance, how the political nature of the show recedes into the background until the sixth episode, after which it changes gears as an action thriller, replete with killings, hangings, and candlelight protests.

Even the nature of its politics is shaky: even though the show is set in Lahore in pre-independent India and populated with Muslim characters, there is no mention or demand for Pakistan by any of the characters, including the group of revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the British. The idea of independence and the fight for it is treated as a monolith — as if the barriers of caste, class, religion, and borders were all but imaginary. This isn’t exactly distorting history but feels somewhat closer to an arrogant approach intent on erasing parts of it. There is after all, a difference between a storyteller taking creative liberties and a storyteller being downright lazy about their job.

Then there’s the distance that Bhansali seemingly maintains from the underwritten characters of the five women who essay the courtesans in the show. Which is to say, that the show seems worryingly disinterested in their sexual independence or sexuality, especially the queer undertones that have been synonymous with courtesan culture. The pleasure of these five women or how they choose to seek it, is never prioritized, much less examined, resulting in the show that sticks out for its asexual reading. There is not one scene where we see the women of Heeramandi revelling either in their bodies or reclaiming their sexual agency in a way that centres their pleasure. Bhansali’s conservative gaze instead works on the assumption that to be a courtesan is to be a woman who substitutes the primal need for sex with endless mind-games.

In a way, Heeramandi, arguably the most ambitious project that Bhansali has undertaken, spotlights the auteur’s long-standing view of women as sacrificial lambs, women who appear powerful only on paper but on screen, are reduced to cardboards who are defined only by their endurance to their own suffering. These eight episodes — meandering, incompetent, and empty — are proof that when it comes to women, Bhansali has been — and is — the kind of filmmaker who is far more comfortable in depicting the illusion of their strength rather than a display of it.

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