Heeramandi Review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's show is an opulent indulgence of ishq and inquilab

Web Series: Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar

Cast: Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Richa Chadha, Sharmin Segal, Sanjeeda Shaikh, Taha Shah Badussha, Farida Jalal, Fardeen Khan, Shekhar Suman, Adhyayan Suman

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Episodes: 8

OTT: Netflix

Rating: 4 Moons

Watching Farida Jalal act is the greatest joy any cinema lover can experience. Sanjay Leela Bhansali brings back the same old magic by creating a memorable role for her in his debut web series, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar. Released on Netflix, the 8-episode show is an opulent indulgence of ishq (love) and inquilab (freedom). Set against the backdrop of pre-Independence, the multi-starrer positions itself as one of the grandest series ever made in the country. 

Heeramandi is the story of tawaifs (courtesans) residing in Heeramandi in old Lahore. Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) is the huzoor of the shahi mahal. She has a dark past of killing her elder sister Rehana (Sonakshi Sinha) and ill-treating her younger sister Waheeda (Sanjeeda Shaikh). Mallikajaan's daughters, Lajjo (Richa Chadha) and Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) had their nath utrayi ritual, which brought them into the world of mean games. However, her younger daughter, Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal) is the innocent one and aspires to be a poet, not tawaif. Despite belonging to Heeramandi, where Nawabs change every day, Alam finds herself drawn towards Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha), a highly educated heir of the Baloch family, known for serving the British. Tajdar is a rebel and puts himself at complete service for freedom. Amidst this, Mallikajaan's past makes a haunting comeback, challenging her existence. 

Sanjay Leela Bhansali is popular for his big screen grandeur, lavish sets, and poetry through beauty. Heeramandi has been in the making for several years and there were initial doubts around whether his world is suited for the small-screen virtual viewing. The risk taken by the filmmaker has indeed paid off. Putting stylised sets and material beauty as the second lead, Bhansali allows Moin Beg's concept to play the protagonist. The empty spaces, water fountains and colour palette call for special appreciation as they set the tone for the series right. Moin's concept doesn't judge the women of Heeramandi and Bhansali's larger-than-life approach towards cinema empowers them through dialogues and dramatic pieces of conversations. 

Heeramandi is a journey in itself. With 8 episodes of almost an hour each, Bhansali and Moin create a space for the characters in the hearts. The highs and lows make the series unique. While Heeramandi isn't the routine period drama with a typical SLB touch, there are multiple layers that gradually open up. However, not all tracks are worth the effort. Through characters like Mallikajaan, Fareedan, Bibbojaan and Waheeda, the story doesn't victimise courtesans, it gives them wings to fly in the free sky. Yes, the female characters dominate the male ones, except Tajdar. 

Bhansali's cinematic understanding shouldn't be doubted. His canvas is a flawless painting using shades of romance, politics, greed, power, authority, trust, freedom, empowerment and most importantly, respect. Heeramandi is coated with diamonds of India's independence from the British Raj, breaking societal shackles, and standing for each other's rights. The series might be longer than normal but the binge is worth the time. There's a different sense of pride and relief to watch Bhansali telling stories of strong women. His understanding of womanhood and feminism is way ahead of its time. Tapping into human emotions rather than gender politics, Moin's concept might be set in the pre-independence era but it's progressive. A special mention for the way Bhansali tackles funeral sequences and the drama around it. 

What makes Heeramandi a spectacular journey is the performances. Manisha Koirala commands your attention from the first frame. She carries the attitude of a huzoor like a queen. Situations and her past life has made Mallikajaan a ruthless tawaif who simply fails to bow down before men and adversities. But when it comes to fulfilling her duties as a mother, she turns vulnerable but not a victim. Playing the game of magic with her eyes and mannerisms, Manisha owns Mallikajaan. Sonakshi Sinha is in her element, blending sass, swag and menace. As Rehana and Fareedan, the actress transitions into a person we've never seen before. Humanity remains at the top. Sonakshi wears the character's demeanour like her second skin. 

Taha Shah Badussha is a revelation. Handsome, charming and brilliantly cast as Tajdar, he holds the pillars of Heeramandi strongly with the female star cast. Taha makes Tajdar his alter ego and shines brightly as one of the best-written characters. There's a prominent graph to his role and that's pulled off effortlessly. He channels Tajdar's royalty, chivalry and softness with a masculine energy that draws you closer to his personality. Aditi Rao Hydari is flawless as Bibbojaan who is gentle as a flower but has the fire of rebellion packed tightly in her heart. Her innocence is deceiving but lovable. Bibbojaan is the soul of Heeramandi and Aditi does justice to it. 

Sanjeeda Shaikh as Waheeda has a remarkable graph. Angst, greed and injustice are embedded in her, but that doesn't make her a villain. The actress is brilliant. Richa Chadha might have a brief role but she's excellent. The weakest link of Heeramandi is Sharmin Segal. The young actress is put in the centre of the story but she fails to bring out raw emotions. Her dialogue delivery needs improvement. Yes, there are moments where she performs well but that's not enough to hold a show. Taha comes to her rescue and saves it with his charm. Fardeen Khan is back and how! But Shekhar Suman and Adhyayan Suman have very little to do. 

The music of Heeramandi is soulful and enigmatic. The cameras do a fabulous job of telling a grand story. The show is a slow-burn beauty that commands your attention without consuming your sensibilities. Heeramandi deserves ample time but that's the flavour the show offers.