Heeramandi Review: Manisha Koirala reclaims her Queendom
Heeramandi Review: Manisha Koirala reclaims her Queendom as Mallikajaan

The Khamoshi actor holds fort in SLB’s opulent period drama that narrowly escapes from collapsing under its own weight, thanks to the timely intervention of its motley bunch of super-talented women

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Mitakshara Kumar


Writer: Moin Baig


Cast: Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Sharmin Segal, and others


Stars: 3



It is the 1920s and the story unfolds in Lahore’s Heeramandi—the home of the tawaifs, established during the Mughal period. We get a glimpse of three ambitious sisters Rehana, Mallika, and Waheeda engaged in a power struggle; each wants to be queen of the kotha. A mother’s newborn is snatched away, a daughter witnesses her mother’s brutal killing, and a miniature Game of Thrones is set into motion. Cut to 25 years later, Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) is the undisputed mallika of Heeramandi. And now she is looking for a suitable successor. One of her two daughters, Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari), is already part of the business but the other one, Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal), refuses to become a tawaif; she dreams of becoming a poetess instead. But before Mallikajaan could pass on the baton, the very existence of Heeramandi becomes a question mark. Trouble comes from three sides. Alamzeb revolts against Mallikajaan and moves in with the man she is in love with…the young couple wants to get married; Mallikajaan had riled up a British officer by disrespecting him and he now seeks revenge and it doesn’t help that Bibbojaan is actively working with the freedom fighters acting as a spy and a messenger; and amid all this, Mallikajaan’s nemesis, Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha) lands up as her next-door neighbour.


What follows is how Mallikajaan deals with this triple whammy and how the turn of events makes the free-spirited women of Heeramandi forget their inner politics and join forces to take on the British government.


The Craft

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi, which he co-directs with Mitakshara Kumar, stuns you with the opulence—the hair and makeup are on fleek, each costume is gorgeous and meticulously researched that reflects in the intricate detailing, the sets ooze SLB’s trademark grandiose, every frame is immaculate with absolutely nothing being out of the place… even the single strand of stray lock blowing in the wind being as meticulously choreographed as the stunning dance set pieces. The cinematography ensures this lavish potpourri of visual perfection is captured with all its essence and magnified further. In short, visually, Heeramandi is a masterpiece, it is what SLB had promised.


But beyond the beguilingly beautiful frames, Heeramandi is all about its women. Manisha Koirala’s performance as Mallikajaan, the conniving and power-hungry madam is as flawless as SLB’s visuals. The scene of her sitting under the fountain, a broken and battered woman trying to rise from the ashes, is what goosebump moments are made of. And she rises as the true queen of Heeramandi having made the supreme sacrifice, her first selfless act in the series, to save her clan. The fountain that washes away her impurities is her throne. Koirala is regal, stunning, and nuanced. One wonders what took SLB so many years to work with his Khamoshi actress again. The series reflects how both Bhansali and Koirala have transformed as artistes since their first collaboration, which was probably one of SLB’s best works and most definitely his most minimalist.


Sonakshi Sinha gets to play a double role, first as Mallikajaan’s tormentor and then as her nemesis. The actor who has already proven her acting credentials with Dahaad last year, does equal justice to both. It is a joy to watch actors like her taking up such delicious and challenging roles on OTT.


Aditi Rao Hydari as Bibbojaan, the delicate and obedient daughter of Mallikajaan, who eventually turns out to be the strongest and the most rebellious of the lot, is spot on. She is the perfect amalgamation of grace, beauty, vulnerability, and courage. However, since Bibbojaan has a core very similar to that of Anarkali, a character Hydari played in the 2023 web series, Taj: Divided By Blood, one is not wowed by her performance.


One is however wowed and how by Richa Chadha. She plays Lajjo, a courtesan madly in love with her nawab, and is in a shambles after his betrayal. Although she gets limited screen time, the actor channels a dash of Miss Havisham and adds a bit of Chhoti Bahu to make the tragic character immortal.


Sharmin Segal, SLB’s niece who had made her acting debut with his 2019 movie, Malaal, plays the rebellious Alamzeb, whose love story forms the heart of the sprawling series. She imbues the young poetess with a wide-eyed innocence but is let down by the writing, which makes the character come across as monotone.


Although Sanjeeda Sheikh doesn’t get a meaty role, she proves her acting chops and establishes her credentials as a serious actor.


Among the men, only Taha Shah Badussha gets to play a full-blown character and as Tajdar, a character far removed from the 2023 breakthrough act as Murad in Taj: Divided By Blood, he makes quite an impression proving his versatility as an actor.


SLB’s works are also known for their music. And Heeramandi’s music, composed by SLB himself, is superlative; the lilting melodies beautifully weave in A M Turaz’s poetic lyrics. Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar’s background score adds to the world-building.


The underwhelming aspects

The movie unfolds like a collection of paintings. And that might just be the problem as well. For although as paintings each frame is flawless, this is cinema, an artform that is not just about gorgeous visuals. The other movie bits beyond the immaculate frames are where Heeramandi falters. It seems that like Narcissus, the series is so smitten by its own physical beauty that at times it loses track of the other goings-on. The writing is not half as good as the visuals. The indiscriminate use of illeism makes the dialogues sound stilted, although if used judiciously this could have helped SLB’s world-building.


Although the female characters get interesting arcs, apart from Mallikajaan, most are not layered enough to make you empathise with them. Alemzeb, a character whose story takes centrestage in the series, remains a monotone character, things happen to her but she struts through everything with dreamy eyes and a resplendent smile—she is a ‘rebellious’ woman essentially viewed through the lens of a man…she is almost a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. However the male characters in the movie suffer a more brutal fate. Apart from Tajdar, they are treated rather shoddily. In fact, the way Zulfikar is introduced is unnecessarily cringe. A female-led movie need not treat its men as props. And peopling a series of this scale and magnitude with cardboard characters should be considered a cardinal sin.


And it doesn’t help that the series starts at an excruciatingly slumberous pace and the episodes seem to get progressively longer. However, the action slowly picks up from the third episode, strangely becoming quite a different series from how it had begun with the self-indulgent streak slowly being stripped off. A crisper and more objective editing would have helped the pace and impact of the series.


What Lies Beneath

Although Heeramandi is a fictional tale, it flips through some of the deliberately-forgotten pages of history. That of the courtesans of India. Courtesans or tawaif were well-educated, fashionable, talented, and classically trained musicians and dancers, well-versed in poetry and literature, whose primary job was to entertain men with their performances. In a deeply patriarchal world where women had no agency, the courtesans had power, influence, freedom, and money (according to British records, the courtesans were among the highest tax-paying bracket of Indians). They would also double up as finishing schools for young men from rich and noble families who would be sent to the tawaifs specifically for sex education and to learn good manners, decorum, and etiquette crucial to fit into the high society. These courtesans, unlike the later-day prostitutes, essentially sold their art and had patrons (usually a single patron) who would take care of a large chunk of their financial needs. When the British took over, the nawabs and maharajas were robbed of their lands, financial independence, and honour. Their financial constraint also meant that they couldn’t splurge on the courtesans anymore. Hence eventually, without patronage from their nawabs, these courtesans had to look for other sources and ways to earn a living. This led to many courtesans transforming into prostitutes. This transitional phase and the courtesans’ fierce fight to survive while maintaining their dignity finds a poignant portrayal in Heeramandi.


The series also weaves in the fact that some of the fortunate ones, who were known for their singing, found record companies willing to record their songs. The most famous of them was of course, Gauhar Jaan, arguably the first voice to be recorded on the gramophone in India. Then there were those who eventually graduated to acting (which was a taboo for women in those days and hence men would be playing the female characters as well) on stage and later in the movies. The superstar of Bengali theatre Noti Binodini, was a tawaif in the early part of her life. The biggest name is that of Jaddanbai when it comes to Hindi cinema. The mother of actress Nargis, Jaddanbai was also a tawaif before she became a singer and then a music composer (the first woman composer of the Hindi film industry), actress, film producer, and one of the pioneers of the industry.


But the main focus of Heeramandi is on the most crucial role these courtesans played in shaping the future of the country—beyond the art and culture, among these feisty women of wealth and agency were also rebels the British government dreaded. While many opened their kothas to the freedom fighters for their secret meetings and their coffers to finance the freedom movement, many were actively involved as informants and messengers. There are folklores of Azeezunbai, a Lucknow courtesan who fought on horseback armed with a pistol along with the Indian soldiers against the British during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. But while writing the history of the Indian freedom struggle, men who refused to consider the tawaifs as part of the society never considered wasting even an ounce of ink on documenting the contribution of these women. And that is why SLB’s Heeramandi is an important piece of work; it attempts to create a conversation around a tribe of independent women and their place in our history that our patriarchal society has so far failed to even acknowledge.



Heeramandi stuns you with opulence; the series unfolds like a collection of paintings. But once the paintings start to talk in an attempt to become cinema, you find yourself plonked into an agonizingly slow-paced stilted world of heightened melodrama where people mostly address themselves in the third person. Also, it doesn’t help that the lavish set remains a set ready for a highfalutin performance and fails to become a lived-in space. The characters never get comfortable with the opulence. Heeramandi’s world is like that heavily embroidered exquisite wedding saree that makes you look stunning but never lets you get too comfy to forget that you are putting up a show.


Credit goes to its feisty women, who much like in the series, come together to rescue Heeramandi with their power-packed performances. Be it Monisha Koirala who gives a brilliant performance as Mallikajaan, the self-proclaimed queen of the Mandi, or Richa Chadha, who in her relatively limited screentime brings the tragic Lajjo to life, or the veteran Farida Jalal who lights up the screen as the loving but formidable Qudsia—each puts their best foot forward and eventually they drag you into this overly dramatic world of love, betrayal, palace intrigue, patriotism, and of course women power.


But what makes Heeramandi an important series is the fact that probably this is the first time when the active and often crucial roles played by the tawaifs in the Indian freedom movement get an elaborate and much-needed mention.

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