Bhansali’s Heeramandi On Netflix

After watching the aesthetic spectacle that is Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Heeramandi on Netflix, Dr. Hasan Zafar pens two letters. Alas, once again, someone else has taken it upon themselves to define the narrative around Pakistan's heritage and culture.

Bhansali’s Heeramandi On Netflix

After watching Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi on Netflix, I felt compelled to write two letters. One to Mr Bhansali and the other to the people of Lahore. I decided to publish those letters here.

Dear Mr. Sanjay Leela Bhansali,

I hope this letter finds you well. I grew up in Lahore in the 1970s and 80s, and I am very familiar with the streets and alleys of the old city of Lahore. We Lahoris call it the walled city or androon shehar. It has its own aroma, ambience, and culture that can only be experienced; it is very hard to describe it in words. However, you as an outsider – please allow me to use this word, outsider, as you have not lived here – have taken it upon yourself and I must say you have done a great job in the 8 episodes of Heeramandi that I watched in nearly two sittings. In my commentary on your production, I do not wish to speak on behalf of my fellow Lahoris. These observations are personal, and I speak for myself alone.

I mean no disrespect to your art, but before this, I could never watch any of your films beyond 20 minutes. The ambience you create in your films has never attracted me. The layer of imagination in your films is too thick, the flight of fancy too high, the flow of emotions too generous, the characters too remote from the world I can relate to.

However, Heeramandi is different.

Your Waheedan speaks Punjabi in the Lahori style, though she seems to miss out on one striking aspect of the Lahori accent – the reversal of the R and D sounds. Since some of the other characters, as you have established, come from other parts of India, one can excuse the local accent. Your visual depiction of Lahore is impressive – if not too realistic. 

Of course, the extraordinary décor of the kothas, especially of Shahi Mahal and Khwabgah, bears your signature. But unlike your other films, these embellishments do not seem too disturbing. The Lahore of over a century ago that you create looks plausible. I don’t know if you have ever visited Lahore yourself, or perhaps even your art director did, but while watching the series I could tell, yes, this is how it might have looked in its full bloom. Maybe not too fanciful, but close to it. The streets of Lahore that you have shown do evoke a sense of nostalgia for good old days, when the city looked nice and calm. 

Someone shared an observation with me, which I would like to share with you too. 

There is no dargah located in the midst of Heeramandi. If you meant it to be the dargah of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh, that is nearly two miles away from Heeramandi. But you can of course use your poetic licence in the interest of the story – of course no Alamjan could rush that far in the scene where she came to meet Nawab Tajdar. So, that is understandable. Another person observed that Badshahi Masjid and Shahi Qila are adjacent to Heeramandi, and their presence on the skyline would make it more realistic. Maybe you could include them in the sets. But never mind. You compensated for these shortcomings through your depiction of the bazaars, particularly the bookshop, as a site of romantic encounter.

I’m not sure if you present the tawaifs of Heeramandi as an allegory of some political figures in India or Pakistan. But some similarities are striking. If your audience reads these characters between the lines, they can definitely identify some present-day politicians in them, with perhaps one thing missing in some cases, at least in Pakistan – the nationalistic fervour which the tawaifs of Lahore displayed against foreign rule. This may account for a cynical reading of your story, but I have heard people using Malikajan, Bibbojaan, and other characters to identify with some real-life figures, particularly from the ruling elite.

Film audiences do take such liberties. I am sure you do not mind it either.

I would suggest that if you ever decide to visit Lahore, do find people from androon shehar to take you around, instead of some self-styled experts on Lahore. The real residents of Lahore will have interesting stories to share with you that might provide some thoughts for another film on Lahore.

I would like to thank you for taking an interest in the city of Lahore.

With warm regards,


To my fellow Lahoris,

I'm not sure if you have had the opportunity to watch Heeramandi by Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Netflix. If you haven't, I suggest you do. It will entertain you in many ways, and might disturb you in some. The entertaining aspect is undoubtedly Lahore – a city we love and cherish, yet have made unsightly with reckless constructions and careless manners. 

It looks beautiful once again from the lens of a Mumbai-based Indian filmmaker. The latter part of this statement might be enough to make this story disturbing for you. If it doesn’t, then I wonder why not? 

Bhansali portrays our esteemed Muslim nawabs as stooges of the British, consolidating their rule through loyalty for their vested interests. They frequent the kothas of tawaifs in the Shahi Mohallah – Heeramandi. Parties are thrown for the British masters in their palaces, with everyone consuming a significant amount of alcohol, including the ladies – the Muslim women. The tawaifs are known as the Ranis of Lahore, and they bear illegitimate children of the respected nawabs – some of whose families perhaps still occupy the power corridors of this country. However, Bhansali depicts these tawaifs as possessing better morals than those nawabs, as they stand up against foreign rule and make sacrifices. In contrast, those nawabs conspire with the British against their own people and country.

Whatever the reality may be, you can continue to argue. You can even dismiss this entire story as falsehood, exaggerated, and unrealistic. But, it is there to stay. 

I wrote in one of my previous articles, “that means a foreign filmmaker will decide what Pakistani heroes and heroines are like – how they dress, what social, moral values they stand and fight for. 

In other words, they will enjoy a great control – if not an absolute control – on defining Pakistani culture through those films. And definitely, those who have the ability to tell the story, they have a considerable control over the national narrative.” And that “When we don’t have the means and ability to tell our stories, somebody else will.”

So, it has happened. And no one can stop it from happening again. 

Your fellow Lahori,


The author holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow, UK. He hosts a political talk show on TV and appears as a political commentator in TV shows.