Heeramandi: The Reality Beyond the Glitter & Glamour

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s debut web series and magnum opus ‘Heeramandi’ has been out on Netflix for a while now, and many people have their own opinions, so why not share mine? While my forte may be more centered on the food and beverage industry, I felt strongly enough about this series to share my thoughts on it. If you wish to read what this humble writer has to say, please read on.

Let’s start off with the glaringly obvious point that Bhansali’s Heeramandi is an exaggerated, opulent fantasy world that is starkly different to the reality of what Heeramandi used to be pre-partition. While the courtesans who ruled the roost there did indeed hold a degree of power and drew in the nawabs of the time, not all of them had the option to entertain only the richest men, nor did they have cavernous room filled with gold, jewels and money in each haveli. In fact, the area of Heeramandi is a collection of narrow, winding, congested pathways, so narrow that two people crossing each other will definitely touch shoulders while moving past. The buildings themselves were also stacked on top of each other, closing off sources of sunlight in some areas. The courtesans, ustaads, musicians and the help residing within the walls of Heeramandi didn’t have their own, huge rooms to leisurely sleep in and pursue their passion of poetry. It was a cruel world for these women, who lived on the outskirts of society, with perhaps a small percentage of them appreciated by their sponsors for their intelligence and wit, but for the most part, served as a source of entertainment with their singing, mostly in Punjabi, by the way, not in Urdu as show in Bhansali’s world, and their dance, and also as bed warmers who satiated the carnal desires of men who felt could not be fulfilled by their noble wives, often leaving them with illegitimate children to raise on their own. In most cases, the father would outright reject the child as their own, dusting their hands off of any responsibility. Sometimes, the mothers themselves would also be unsure as to the baby’s father. Thus, these children of Heermandi took their mothers’ names as a surname.

However, the courtesans of the real Heeramandi did indeed play their part in the pre-partition uprising, going as far back as the 1857 mutiny, but that was fueled to maintain the relationship Kanpur courtesan Azizan Bai had with her sponsors, so it wasn’t entirely motivated by patriotism. Another example of historical inaccuracy is the idea that the courtesans of Lahore completely shut down their businesses to support the separation of state movement, when in fact these women had to make money to survive, quickly reinventing themselves, by using their talents of singing and acting to make a living when faced with social stigma and dwindling patrons. A famous courtesan named Gauhar Jaan was actually a celebrated concert singer and gramophone artist, fondly referred to as “India’s Melba” internationally, and was even asked by Gandhi himself to perform for the Swaraj Fund in 1921.

A contradictory viewpoint that these strong, independent women were languishing away for love is also quite an exaggerated point of view. While there must be a few courtesans who fell in love and longed for a place in society, the majority of these ladies greatly enjoyed their freedom, free from the shackles of societal expectations, and were in all probability, so disillusioned by men, that they didn’t truly crave a relationship with them, much less marriage. Like men, they ran their businesses, paid taxes, most of them well-read in etiquette, poetry and culture.

With all of that being said, I was truly enamored by Bhansali’s Heeramandi, not just by the grand sets, extravagant jewelry and exquisite costumes, but also for the characters. To get the glaringly obvious negatives out of the way first, I do wish Lajjo’s character had risen from the ashes like a phoenix, somehow gaining revenge on Zoravar for his betrayal. Fareedan absolutely broke after Mallika Jaan’s encounter with the policemen in exchange for Alamzeb’s release from prison, but I felt her lifelong purpose of avenging her mother should have taken precedence at the end, with her becoming the ruler of both havelis, and moving her mother’s portrait back into Mallika Jaan’s home. The world and all its critics have already shared their view on Alamzeb’s portrayal, so I shall refrain as I feel exactly the same way, especially because the powerful performances by Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chaddha, Taha Shah and even the supporting cast, with beloved veteran actress Farida Jalal and Jason Shah completely embodying their roles, Sharmin as Alamzeb could have been just as powerful, but as many before me have said, her lack of expressions and depth of emotion in her eyes let down Alamzeb when she could have been one of the most remembered characters of this series.

Coming to the dialogues of this series, throughout the 8 episodes, I found gems that highlight the timeless struggle a woman faces, not only against society, but also herself, as well as the power a woman can wield with her words alone. The way Mallika Jaan cut her son Zoravar down to size, the way Bibbo Jaan vowed to give her life to her country, even Ustaad Jee’s words to Alamzeb as he led her to the path of revenge for Tajdar and their unborn baby, have demonstrated the unwavering strength and struggle for survival these women of Heeramandi have shown in reality as well as in Bhansali’s world.

Of course, we can’t forget the musical numbers of this series, which many have rightly so pointed out that in the 1940s, courtesans in Lahore probably preferred Punjabi songs, especially those of Noor Jahan and KL Saigal. What was served in Bhansali’s version was an odd mix of Sufiyana kalam and classic Urdu songs.

So was it the most historically accurate representation of the real Heeramandi? No. Was it true to Bhansali’s flair for the grandeur and elaborate extravagance? Absolutely! Were there flaws in the narrative of the story? Yes. But did it serve as an entertaining, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking watch? 100%

My recommendation is, watch this series for the sets, costumes, acting, dialogues and perhaps most of the plot as well, and not to compare its glaringly obvious historical inaccuracies.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.