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The dazzle and drama of ‘Heeramandi’

Manisha Koirala and Richa Chadha on the show's scale and how Sanjay Leela Bhansali never does the obvious thing

The cast of 'Heeramandi'
The cast of 'Heeramandi'

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s eight-part series for Netflix explores the world of tawaifs in pre-independence India. Previous Bhansali works like Devdas and Gangubai Kathiawadi have also focused on courtesans, but Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar is his first streaming show (dropping on 1 May). The ensemble cast features Manisha Koirala and Sonakshi Sinha as rivals and Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha, Sanjeeda Sheikh and Sharmin Segal as other dancers, courtesans and family members in Lahore’s famed red light district of the 1940s, their rivalries and power tussles playing out against the backdrop of the freedom struggle.

Koirala, who plays Mallikajaan, the boss-lady of the most powerful brothel in Heera Mandi, reunites with Bhansali after 1996 when she played Annie in his directorial debut Khamoshi: The Musical. Chadha, who plays heartbroken alcoholic Lajjo in Heeramandi, previously appeared as Rasila in Bhansali’s 2013 romantic tragedy Ram-Leela. The actors spoke to Lounge about the making of this period costume drama. Edited excerpts:

In Lahore of this time, there is a vocal respect for the powerful and cultured women of Heera Mandi. What was your reaction when you read the script of ‘Heeramandi’?

Manisha Koirala: Honestly, it took me some time to grasp that Sanjay Bhansali had called me and I was reading his script. I was slightly in a daze but by the second reading I could understand the scale that the script was talking about. I was thrilled, surprised and very happy that this had come my way.

Richa Chadha: I knew that if Bhansali was making it, he would definitely give the tawaifs the respect they deserve. He would be aware that they were not just purveyors of culture and preservers of thumri, classical dance and shayari, but also they did have a considerable amount of power, especially in pre-Partition India. I think people will understand the creative liberty that has been taken here, in terms of the grandiosity of the sets and the storytelling. There are so many characters—male and female—beyond the faces you see on the poster. In his daily actions and instructions to actors, Bhansali tries to do the non-obvious. He gives you things that help you to not judge your own character, even if the lines are judgmental or they are emanating from a man’s mouth, as happens in my character’s case. Not all these women may be able to escape the gilded cage and the social setting, but there is some dignity and redemption that the storytelling affords them. I found this very interesting.

This is a period piece and it is also very culturally specific. Were you assigned any specific research for your respective characters?

Koirala: For my character, he had given me a brief on Noor Jehan, or a character like Noor Jehan. I watched a couple of YouTube videos of her singing and I realised that a tawaif has to be really poised, plus their diction, the way they move, the way they sit, the way they move their hands, has a particular style. I needed to bring in that rhythm and grace into my body language. Personally I am quite informal. I slouch and sit with my legs up. But for the part I had to be very ladylike. There was a time when Sanjay said what I was doing was too ladylike. He reminded me that I am a huzoor, the boss. I had got so much into this feminine aspect because I am just the opposite in real life, but he constantly made me improve and temper it down, sometimes directing me to sit like a man. We had a diction coach and when I started taking my nuktas too seriously he would say drop the nukta. So yes, we all did a little bit of research here and there. I observed and listened and formed an idea of who a tawaif was and brought it to the set where Sanjay would then say do this less or do that more.

Chadha: He gave a very clear instruction that he wanted Meena Kumari, and not just her on-screen avatar but her personal life, with her alleged affinity for drink. He wanted Lajjo to be portrayed with a lot of dignity and love. So I did my best with that. My in-laws are in Lucknow and I know that men of good families were often sent to tawaifs to learn about culture or salika (good manners), how to sit, how to enjoy poetry and music. So there was always a great deal of respect in my mind, particularly as I have read Umrao Jaan’s poetry and Meena Kumari’s poetry. These were not just vapid women. There was a lot of depth and pain. There’s a social commentary in their songs and dance. I was very aware that I have a small amount of screen time to make an impact, so I let the whole experience be very immersive for me. I wanted to do something that feels raw, real and different from what other actors were doing within the show.

This is your big first series. What was it like to stay with the same character for such a long time?

Koirala: After 35 years and almost 100 films, going on set and filmmaking becomes very mundane and boring. There have been times when I have taken on a project and after the second or third day of shooting, I’ve regretted it. I’d rather be in my garden in Kathmandu tending to my roses than doing something I cannot give my full attention to. I’m very careful in taking on a project because I love this profession and want to honour it so I must be in a space where I’m growing, learning, and enjoying it... Of course there are adjustments here and there, even on Heeramandi, but the sheer joy of working on a great project is something else. Heeramandi reminded me why I love this profession and why, even after 35 years, I’m pining to do more.

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer. She posts at @Udita J.

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