Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar Wastes Its Lavish Potential

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one of Hindi cinema’s best directors. His name is synonymous with sumptuous costumes, opulent production design, vivid female lead characters, expertly directed songs that function like short films, and soaring music. Actresses over the years have spoken with great admiration for the director’s stewardship over their most nuanced and multidimensional performances. So why does “Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar”—Netflix’s newest limited series, directed, scored, and partly written by Bhansali—range from aggressively mediocre to bafflingly bad?

The premise is not without promise: Based on an original concept by Moin Beg, “Heeramandi” takes place in the early 1940s in pre-Partition Lahore. The narrative features an ensemble cast of wealthy tawaifs (courtesans), their nawab (nobleman) patrons, local English policemen attempting to quash independence efforts, and revolutionaries intent on breaking free from British rule. Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) is the powerful huzoor (madame) of Shahi Mahal (Royal Palace), presiding over her richly appointed kingdom with the ruthlessness of a general and the style of an empress. Under her thumb are her daughters: talented singer and secret freedom-fighter Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari), aspiring writer Alamzeb (Sharmin Segal) who is resisting her mother’s attempts to force her tawaif debut, and the perpetually disgruntled Sanjeeda Sheikh (Waheeda). The cast also includes Tajdar Baloch (Taha Shah Badussha), a wealthy young nawab who abandons his post-Oxbridge law career to join the fight against the British; as expected, he and Alamzeb fall in love. Both life choices enrage his father Ashfaq (Ujjwal Chopra), whose plans to maintain his status and riches depend on steady alliances with Alistair Cartwright (Jason Shah), the local police commissioner, who wants to break Mallikajaan’s spirit. 

But an intriguing premise alone cannot provide the substance necessary for a successful eight-part prestige TV series. Perhaps more than any of Bhansali’s other films which depict tawaifs, or their modern iteration, sex workers (“Devdas,” “Saawariya,” “Gangubai Kathiawadi”), “Heeramandi” is far too paranoid about holding the audience’s attention—with songs that lack Bhansali’s usual directorial panache, production design, and costumes—to devote any time to developing its characters. For all the power Mallikajaan boasts of having, she and her daughters are repeatedly vilified, harmed, and shamed by the world around them. Gifted though they are, Koirala and Rao Hydari are wasted in roles that ostensibly seek to assert feminine power in a masculine world but are saddled with dialogue that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman-level screenwriting course. More importantly, the history of tawaifs is rooted in their very real authority as well-educated, land-owning women, whose lives relied on a kind of queering of traditional male-dominated power structures. “Heeramandi” completely elides this crucial aspect of courtesan life.

Another problem is Segal, who is Bhansali’s niece and the miscast of the decade as a supposedly wilful daughter, intent on a career as a poet. The actress is in possession of a single facial expression, so her face looks the same in moments of devastation and elation. There are scores of other Indian actresses better suited to the part, but Segal is the only one related to the director. Even the colonizers get a one-dimensional edit as cartoonishly venal men whose characterization is more reminiscent of men twirling their mustaches while tying women to railroad tracks than the far more nuanced portrayal of insecure, power-hungry British officers in a film like “Lagaan.”

So what, if anything, is there to recommend “Heeramandi”? Though Koirala and Rao Hydari try their best, the only actress in the cast to truly rise above the material, with ethereal ease and joy, is Farida Jalal, a legendary Hindi film actress, who plays Qudsia Begum, Tajdar’s grandmother. Her elegance and light touch help her scenes from descending into melodrama, so much so that this writer would be far more interested in a spinoff about Qudsia’s inner life and remarkably progressive outlook. Also of note, as always in a Bhansali production, are the costumes. Silks, chiffons, and velvets are to be expected in a world as majestic as that of the tawaifs, but costume designers Rimple and Harpreet Narula go the extra mile, featuring exquisite zardozi (embroidery) in silver, gold, and copper on the women’s attire; decorated Afghan caps for the nawabs; and jewelry—diamonds, gold, gems—that can be more enthralling than the characters. In fact, if the viewer were to turn off the sound, the costume design of “Heermandi” would still be a feast for the eyes, if nothing else.

This writer would be willing to bet good money that somewhere in the pitch deck for this series, the words “Game of Thrones” were mentioned. The influence of the HBO juggernaut on Bhansali’s effort is clear: the music sounds like he mainlined Ramin Djawadi’s gorgeous score for the former directly into his veins, and the cinematography—shadowy, grey, muddled—leaves the viewer squinting à la the near-pitch black darkness for which “Game of Thrones” (and its spinoff “House of the Dragon”) became infamous. But while the machinations of Khaleesi, Cersei Lannister, and the Stark women made for (mostly) interesting television, the women—and men!—of “Heeramandi” are constantly let down by the quality of the writing and the cliches of its direction. 

New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik recently proposed the idea of “mid TV”—prestige TV you can watch while folding laundry. High production values do not translate into excellent scripts or exciting direction, but Netflix makes no distinction between viewers riveted by their programming, or those who simply have the streaming service on in the background as they wash dishes or sweep the floors. “Heeramandi” has racked up 33 million views, breaking the record for most-watched Indian series on Netflix. Ted Sarandos possibly took the wrong lesson from the immortal words of Super Hans from “Peep Show”: “People liked Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people.” Nor viewership numbers.

Entire series screened for review. On Netflx now.