Scroll Top

Netflix’s ‘Heeramandi’ is a Fun, Grand, Visual Spectacle

Written by Nishtha Banavalikar

Netflix’s ‘Heeramandi’ made it’s big screen premiere in Melbourne last month and ASAC were invited along to witness the fun, grand, visual spectacle, both on and off screen.

Before even cities like New York and London, it was Melbourne that first got to taste the glamour and splendour of courtesan culture depicted in this special screening event of ‘Heeramandi’.

Right from the start, the beautiful venue of Drum Theatre, in south-eastern Dandenong, which is home to a sizeable South Asian community, was thrumming with life and packed to the brim. From the vibrant marigold flower archway to the ceilings decorated with flowing dupattas and chunnis, the hall was glowing with colour and vibrance.

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest historical adaptation, centres on the tawaifs (courtesans) of Lahore, set against the backdrop of the Independence protests of the 1920s. Echoing Bhansali’s previous films, ‘Devdas’, ‘Padmaavat’ and ‘Bajirao Mastani’, ‘Heeramandi’ spares no expense regarding costume and set design.

The star-studded female cast wear lenghas seemingly dripping in gold, intricate jewellery covering every inch of skin and saris that glisten in the sun. Lahore’s historic district Heeramandi and its Islamic architecture are beautifully depicted, with scenes of local artisans, the culture, poetry and perfumery that flesh out the city.

Though expected to entertain and court the wealthy elite of Lahore, the show’s real focus is on a specific intragroup of these mysterious, enigmatic women; their secrets, desires and betrayals, all whilst tensions between the British colonial rulers and those fighting for Independence rise to a tipping point.

The overall plot is a little contrived, with awkward dialogue and weak acting from younger cast members but the chemistry between the women is undeniably magnetic and Bhansali’s attention to detail to grand set and costume design more than make up for such weaknesses.

‘Heeramandi’ doesn’t wholly avoid commentary about the treatment of tawaifs at the hands of men but doesn’t exactly delve into historical accuracy either. The focus instead is purely on the fictional characters, specifically, head tawaif Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala), whose complicated background coming to light catalyses further dramatic events, with a murder plot, courtesan involvement in the Independence movement and a ‘Romeo and Juliet-esque’ love story.

It leaves much to be desired for undoing historic misrepresentation. Tawaifs were pioneers in arts and culture, with many spreading progressive ideas of gender and women’s economic and sexual liberation. The women depicted here, though similarly liberal with their spending, find themselves more caught up in plots of love and war as they chase freedom from the life of a tawaif.

If nothing else, ‘Heeramandi’ is undeniably a visual spectacle that’s extremely enjoyable to watch. Though brief, it provides an exhilarating insight into a bygone era, not that long ago, that feels like another world compared to our modern age. The lead actresses go above and beyond when needed, portraying deeply complicated, often unlikeable, but ultimately empathetic, influential women.

Overall, ‘Heeramandi’ is a fun, grand and incredibly welcome addition in Indian television on mainstream platforms.

With thanks to Netflix ANZ and Culture Verse for inviting ASAC to this special screening of the first two episodes of ‘Heeramandi’, which premiered on Netflix on 1 May 2024.


South Asian Women in TV |  South Asian History | South Asian Women | Melbourne | Indian Directors 

Related Posts