The Real Story of Heeramandi: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Netflix Series

The Real Story of Heeramandi: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Netflix Series

Known for his grand, period dramas set against the backdrop of royal settings, BAFTA-nominated creator Sanjay Leela Bhansali has chosen a compelling narrative for his first Netflix series, “Heeramandi.” This series delves into the lavish and intricate lives of the courtesans of pre-independence India. Commonly referred to as tawaifs, these courtesans held significant influence and control over the socio-political and economic fabric of Lahore, now in Pakistan. Bhansali’s exploration of the red-light district of Mumbai in the 2022 film “Gangubai Kathiawadi” paved the way for his return to an era when Heeramandi, meaning “the diamond bazaar,” was a thriving hub of culture and art. With actresses like Manisha Koirala and Sonakshi Sinha portraying these larger-than-life characters, Bhansali’s series is inspired by real-life figures and their remarkable stories.

 Bhansali’s Cinematic Legacy

Before “Heeramandi,” Bhansali was already renowned for bringing historical narratives to life with his distinct cinematic vision. His notable successes include “Bajirao Mastani” (2015) and “Padmaavat” (2018), both of which featured lavish sets, historically inspired settings, and emotion-driven storylines. “Heeramandi” follows this tradition, with a meticulously crafted set that brings to life the once-celebrated neighborhood of Lahore. Known today as the red-light district, Heeramandi was originally a flourishing center for artists where culture and creativity thrived. However, the arrival of the British in pre-independence India transformed the area into a hotspot for prostitution and exploitation.

The Historical Heeramandi

Heeramandi owes its name to Heera Singh Dogra, son of Dhian Singh Dogra, who served as Prime Minister during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign. The area’s roots trace back to the Mughal era when it was cultivated as a center for women artisans from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The neighborhood’s proximity to the Lahore Fort established its status as the “Shahi Mohalla” or “Royal Neighborhood,” frequently mentioned in the Netflix series. Heeramandi was home to the tawaifs, who enjoyed the patronage of royal families and nawabs. It was a common practice for young nawabs to visit Heeramandi to learn royal etiquette. The ceremony of “nath utrai,” where young royals bid for the nose ring of a young tawaif, symbolized a coming-of-age for both the tawaif and the nawab.

Culture and Art in Heeramandi

As depicted in Bhansali’s series, Heeramandi was a haven for master artisans skilled in classical dance and music. The mujra dance form, a staple of Heeramandi since Mughal times, played a significant role in the cultural life of the courtesans. The tawaifs, with their elite status and royal patronage, were often invited to perform at royal events. They were not merely entertainers but also confidantes and sometimes mistresses to their royal patrons. Some tawaifs even gave birth to royal heirs, as seen in the series where Mallikajaan (played by Manisha Koirala) is depicted as the mother of Nawab Zorawar Ali Khan (Adhyayan Suman).

The British Colonization and Decline of Heeramandi

The decline of Heeramandi began with the British colonization, which brought Western ideas of morality that reduced the status of tawaifs to mere prostitutes. The increasing dependence of Indian royals on British favor further tied the fate of the tawaifs to the British perception of them. As depicted in “Heeramandi,” the doors of this once-royal neighborhood opened to wealthy non-royals, transforming it into the “Bazaar-e-Husn” or “Market of Beauty.” The area, now a hub for prostitution, also produced some great talent for the burgeoning film industry. Well-trained in arts and music, many tawaifs found fame in cinema, a trend observed in other parts of India as well.

The Role of tawaif in the Independence Movement

Bhansali’s “Heeramandi” not only focuses on the power struggles and dynamics among competing courtesans but also highlights their lesser-known contributions to the Indian independence movement. Through the character of Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari), the series sheds light on the courtesans’ involvement in the struggle for independence. Inspired by the real-life tawaif Azizan Bai, who supported local rebels during the 1857 uprising, Bibbojaan represents the courtesans’ role in providing resources, shelter, and support to the independence cause. Bhansali’s commitment to showcasing this ignored aspect of their lives is evident through the rich characters depicted in the series.

The Making of Heeramandi

Creating “Heeramandi” involved meticulous research and attention to detail to accurately portray the historical and cultural context of the time. The series, set in the 1940s, explores the intricacies of the tawaif culture, their relationships with royalty, and their eventual decline under British rule. Bhansali and writer Moin Beg crafted an eight-episode drama that brings to life the vibrant, multifaceted world of the tawaifs. The lavish sets, opulent costumes, and intricate dance sequences are a testament to Bhansali’s dedication to authenticity and his passion for storytelling.

The Cast and Characters

“Heeramandi” features a stellar cast of Indian actresses who bring depth and nuance to their roles. Manisha Koirala plays Mallikajaan, the most powerful tawaif of Heeramandi, while Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, and other talented actors portray the complex characters of this rich narrative. The series delves into their personal struggles, aspirations, and the socio-political dynamics that shape their lives. Each character is intricately woven into the larger tapestry of Heeramandi, highlighting their individual stories and collective impact on the society of the time.

Bhansali’s vision for “Heeramandi” was to create a series that is not only visually stunning but also rich in historical and cultural significance. In an interview with TIME, he expressed his desire to bring forth the stories of the women of Heeramandi, who have often been reduced to mere entertainers in historical narratives. Through this series, Bhansali aims to showcase the courtesans’ contributions to art, culture, and society, as well as their resilience and strength in the face of adversity.

Since its release, “Heeramandi” has garnered widespread acclaim for its captivating storytelling, stunning visuals, and powerful performances. Critics and audiences alike have praised Bhansali for his ability to transport viewers to a bygone era and for shedding light on the untold stories of the tawaifs. The series has sparked discussions about the historical significance of courtesans in Indian society and their impact on culture and the arts.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Heeramandi” is a poignant exploration of the lives of courtesans in pre-independence India. Through his meticulous attention to detail and passion for storytelling, Bhansali brings to life the vibrant world of Heeramandi, highlighting the courtesans’ contributions to art, culture, and society. The series serves as a reminder of their forgotten legacy and offers a nuanced perspective on their lives and struggles. As Bhansali continues to create compelling narratives that celebrate the rich history and culture of India, “Heeramandi” stands as a testament to his unparalleled vision and storytelling prowess.

Written by Istafa Ali


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