Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar series review: All that glitters

Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar series review: All that glitters

It's no surprise that the liveliest character in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s debut series is the cinematic frame
Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar(2.5 / 5)

A Sanjay Leela Bhansali fantasia for OTT is a cause for concern. Before I got started with it, I wanted to get down and manually stretch the corners of my 30-inch TV. I even contemplated what would be worse, to watch it on a laptop or a tablet? Then, images of office-goers, on a local train ride back home, relishing the series on a smartphone flashed in my head. Oh, what a cardinal sin.

Calling Bhansali’s debut web series grand would be a cop out. As per an Architectural Digest report, the set for Heeramandi, at a sprawling 3 acres, has been the auteur’s biggest indulgence so far. As a product of the labour of over 700 craftsmen, each frame is intricately detailed, like a mandala painting. Credit is also due to production designers Amrita Ray and Subrata Chakraborty and cinematographers Sudeep Chatterjee, Mahesh Limaye and Huentsang Mohapatra. After about eight hours of living in Bhansali’s shimmering dream, some images were etched in my memory. The central Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) lying on a bed of gold ornaments with jhumkas for eyes or her nemesis Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha) relaxing on a swing-bed, maniacally laughing. At the end of a scene, the camera stays for a second too long on the velvety redness of a curtain. Film is a story told in images, but Bhansali’s obsession with the visual often sidetracks the textual. Heeramandi looks like literature but sometimes doesn’t quite feel like it.

The story is set in the titular red-light district in the pre-independence, pre-partitioned Lahore. Courtesans are self-proclaimed queens of the area, who have been enjoying the patronage of the wealthy nawabs. However, the power dynamics are shifting now with the Union Jack entering the fray. The freedom movement has also reached the lanes of Lahore and rebels are meeting in dark rooms, mulling over ways to overthrow the British empire.

Amidst all this turmoil, there is the aforementioned Mallikajaan, the queen bee of the courtesans. Her den, the Shahi Mahal, houses fellow tawaifs including her daughter, the nightingale and undercover rebel Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) and an embittered-over-property-rights-sibling Waheeda (Sanjeeda Sheikh). Mallikajaan has two other daughters: the eldest Lajjo (Richa Chadha), a lovelorn drunkard; and the youngest Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal), who is more inclined towards poetry than the home business. Karma has also come back to haunt Mallika in the form of Fareedan, who is out for blood for the murder of her mother and Mallika’s elder sister Rehana (also played by Sonakshi). As for the men, there is the young, Oxford-returned royal scion Tajdar (Taha Shah Badussha), who is smitten by Alamzeb and the nawabs on narrative fringes: Wali (an underutilised Fardeen Khan), Zulfiqar (Shekhar Suman) and Zoravar (Adhyayan Suman).

As battle lines are drawn between Mallika and Fareedan, the tawaifs try to one-up each other for Heeramandi’s metaphorical throne. Their tussle mostly includes repetitive blackmailing moves and exchange of rhythmic comebacks. Bhansali presents his characters as enigmas in glass cases. When we first meet Mallikajaan, she saunters with recently hennaed arms and feet, her helpers holding her ghaghra, like a crown around her waist. Manisha Koirala, who is reuniting with the director after his 1996 debut Khamoshi: The Musical, is equal measure effective and overdone as the madame courtesan. Sonakshi, as Fareedan, is a strong foil but her character doesn’t go deeper than its incessant need for vengeance. We tread on the love track between Sharmin’s Alamzeb and Taha’s Tajdar for far too long. The actors are quite green in their act and their romance is more mushy than memorable. What is unforgettable though is Richa’s performance as the ‘Devdas-ian’ Lajjo. She exuberates gravitas in the role of the heart-broken tawaif. Too bad it’s too short-lived.

It's no surprise that the liveliest character in the Bhansali series is his cinematic frame. As the director has often stated, he approaches them as paintings. Each piece of furniture, jewellery and clothing are brushstrokes delivering a feeling. But the narrative thread between these beads of beauty starts wearing thin. In a series, good writing is the fuel but Heeramandi chooses to get lost in the labyrinth of elegance. Resultingly, the tale starts taking predictable turns. Admiration sidelines astonishment.

The backdrop of the freedom movement also offers no amazement and feels inorganic. Historical inconsistencies aside (no mention of the Muslim League), the Independence struggle is reduced to constant chants of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, honey-trappings and assassinations. Aditi Rao Hydari is sufficient as the nautch girl but falters as a freedom fighter. The makers seem to struggle with tying up scattered loose-ends. The series resorts to visual allure whenever in doubt. In a scene, Mallikajaan mistreats her youngest Alamzeb over a missing pearl. Reeling with indignity, she immerses herself in a royal bath while holding a burning, picturesque candle, hoping to find the gem in the darkness of the pool. I mean if it looks that pretty…

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