Heeramandi: An Ode to Courtesans of Lahore

Bhansali's craft illuminates every dark patch on his canvas with stunning splendour. His tawaifs are not dwellers of bordellos; they have their Shahi Mahals – royal palaces that remind you of every minute detail that make a palace royal

Heeramandi: An Ode to Courtesans of Lahore

Nostalgia is a seductive liar. Yet, you return to make a pleasurable or painful sojourn in its Khwabgah (dormitory of dreams). It serves you a labyrinth of lies wrapped in diction and fiction, and you, like a besotted moth, swallow all these smoky webs till you are extinguished in the flame. In Imperial India, its address often was mandis (courtesan quarters) of Lucknow, Kolkata, Varanasi or Lahore.

Tawaif, as these courtesans were known, were carriers of the elite tehzeeb (refined culture) which was the fulcrum upon which majesty of yore, power of the post-Mughal feudals and authority of the British Crown rested. Nawabs patronised the mandi the British benefited from it, and begums of the trade ruled.

Hunar (skills) were honed with the use of language and ada (manners) to bewitch patrons for the kothas. The mujra(song-dance performance of courtesans) would light the evenings. Popular poetry of the period would enthrall even the literary-illiterate of raees (elite) who would in return pilfer property from their hereditary vaults to shower on these newfound mistresses. The British would find this indulgence of their subordinates an easy arrangement that ensured "distraction" from brewing rebellion against their Raj, and which kept the powerful potent only for their loins. 

Slowly, the mujra entered the literary lexicon and tomes were penned to immortalise tales of these tawaifs majority of them only existed in the fertile imagination of writers.

Anarkali, a danseuse in the palace of Emperor Akbar, is believed to be a historical character and has a prominent mazaar (mausoleum) in her memory in Lahore. The city's oldest bazaar also bears her name. Though her fame in popular lore is because of Imtiaz Ali Taj's play/script on her romance with Emperor Akbar's son Salim. Similarly, Umraao Jaan is rarely found in history other than Mirza Hadi Hasan Ruswa's classic novel. So is the legend of tawaif Nargis of Lucknow.

These three are remembered the most in popular storytelling and have adorned the silver screen with memorable depictions of their urooj (fame/pinnacle) and zawal (shame/downfall).

This is the magic of television. The souls of forgotten courtesans rose from tombs of obscurity as goddesses on screen when starlets like Nur Jehan, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Rekha and numerous others portrayed them. Their images from movies like Anarkali, Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah and Umrao Jan, accompanied with soulful music, carefully conjured lyrics and dialogues dipped in moorings of every human mood, continue to groove and swoon in memories.

The latest offering for connoisseurs of such celluloid genres is Heeramandi

It's a grandiose project of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose oeuvre is full of movies known for their magnificence. His canvas lusts to accommodate every piece of decoration and drama. Purists rate him a notch below past craftsmen like Kamal Amrohi. His series nevertheless command the fanatic attention of all, from connoisseurs to critics.

The Netflix series Heeramandi is an ode to historic Heeramandi of Lahore – a quarter of courtesans that thrives to this day, sans courtesans, with its tales satiating many a craving. The background of the movie is dimly lit, sometimes pitch dark, signifying the dark in the lives of women, who suffer from unrequited love, if not from the curse of fate.

Bhansali's craft illuminates every dark patch on his canvas with stunning splendour. His tawaifs are not dwellers of bordellos; they have their Shahi Mahals – royal palaces that remind you of every minute detail that make a palace royal. Its halls are decorated with luxurious carpets, charming carvings, embellished furniture, ornate interiors and every other hue of regal opulence.

Even the havelis of nawabs are no match for the headquarters of Heeramandi.

Mallikajaan, played by veteran Manisha Koirala, is 'Her Majesty' here. She keeps her house and city's elites under her thumbs. She is a doyenne of vile and glamour. She has dethroned her elder sister to become the prima donna of Shahi Mahal (royal palace). She has sold her younger sister's son without her consent. She groomed her daughters — that her paramour, a nawab, has sired — to become the next generation of damsels.

Mallika proudly declares that Bartania hukumat (British Raj) calls the shots in Hindustan but "Heeramandi mein hamara sikka chalta hai (only my word is the law in Heeramandi)." 

She is indeed the epitome of guts, guile, grit, governance, eloquence, and greyhound brilliance. She oozes authority even when she says salam to her guests or comforts her innocent protégés with a pat. "Har cheez ki qeemat hai. Hamari bhi qeemat lagi thi (Everything is for a price. Even I was sold for a return)," she reminds every girl who breaks bread in her Mahal.

She coaches her girls in every trick of trade to make men a slave to their beauties. She courts elites and the officer class to extract maximum benefits. She keeps secrets close to her bosom, which only a betrayal can expose.

However, misfortune strikes her when her younger daughter, Alamzeb, refuses to follow her profession and instead finds passion in poetry. Shayarii leads to her mashooq, an educated scion of a local nawab, at Lahore Book Shop. Ishq blossoms and makes way for the lovers to mysteriously find shelters in unexpected places. It costs them the love of their relations and gives them a solitary wilderness to traverse. It even takes them from muhabbat to baghawat (rebellion) – the threshold from which reckons total fana (annihilation).

Mallika's other misfortune is the return of her elder sister Rehana's daughter Freedan, who has mastered the art of intrigue and seeks revenge against Mallika, the murderer of her mother. She snatches the nawab from Mallika's daughter Bibbo, and deceives her former patron to please him. She then welcomes to her pleasure chamber an English officer who could frame Mallika for her mother's murder.

These satanic shenanigans consume most part of the presentation, but it carefully shows that they portend doom for everyone – for the nawabs, who are seeking pleasure and the loyalty of their British Sahibs. For the courtesans, who think they could survive and rule with their beauty, perspicacity and promiscuity.

The tide of time (between 1910 and the 1940's) turns the dice against them. The nawabs choose cowardice and hide behind the British.

The begums of Heeramandi take up the torch of freedom in their hands. Two of Mallika's daughters pick up guns and kill two prominent British officers. While one is executed inside the jail, a caravan of now rebel courtesans assemble outside, never to return to their life as tawaifs. They are ready to bear the batons of the Imperial Police. But they resolved never to waver from the fight for freedom of India, their soil: ek kotha choda ja sakta hai, magar mitti nahin (a courtesan can shun her brothel, but not her soil).

How Indian society accepted and how these courtesans reconciled with it, the film leaves for viewers to ruminate. 

Reactions and review

Strangely, very few reviews saw rare merit in the series. Most of them saw it as an extension of Bhansali's extravagant filmmaking, which found another tale of yore, which he twisted and studded with his quintessential filmy finery. Linguists and history purists took offense to the fact that the tempering with facts and flawed sentences, and improper dialogue delivery made the movie distasteful.

Some of these complaints are cogent.

But people should remind themselves that it's television, not a history lesson. Like all Netflix series, it's a script of approximations, fascinations, and fantasies played out on screen. And to be honest, it has been played out masterfully. The flaws are actually very few. Even if they are, they are like scars shown on the face of a courtesan in the series, well concealed.

It's a story of women, their warped fate, and their ability to survive or succumb to vagaries of life. The setting is grand and so dialogues are expectedly more dramatic. Yet, they are spun on philosophy of life and palpably comments on subtle nuances of human behaviour.

Almost all the actors have delivered radiant performances. Veteran Manisha Koirala, an erstwhile diva of Bollywood, is mesmerising. So is Sonakshi Sinha. She stuns with her femme fatale and seductress incarnate avatar. Aditi Rao Hydari and Sanjeeda Shaikh also deliver knockout performances. Two Punjabi-speaking maids and a Sikh driver play their parts to perfection. Their Punjabi diction is delectable and rekindles memories of characters that found a place in the stories of another erstwhile Lahore resident, Manto.

The showstopper, however, is Indresh Malik, an actor who has lived the role of an epicene, the effeminate character who is often shown as custodians or pimps of tawaifs. Malik's ustadji will linger in the memories of watchers for long.

Even actors who played the angrez and the freedom fighters are equally impressive. In fact, the strength of the film lies in linking the life of courtesans to machinations of the British and then a love for their soil. A love that was neither soiled and nor did it remain unrequited.

This movie takes the story of women (tawaifs) towards a denouement that's an important lesson for even our somewhat troubled time. It doesn't end in heartbreak or hopelessness. It hands over a torching guide to them in the end: mulk se muhabbat (love for one's country).

This hope doesn't have to be extinguished.

The author is an independent journalist in New Delhi