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In director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest lush web series ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’, it’s a given that it’s going to be a dazzling spectacle filled with sweeping cinematography, gorgeous sets, and detailed costuming. But what makes this aesthetically wondrous, women-led series more enchanting is that it’s led by a group of actors who have tremendous agency on and off the show. The eight-episode musical period drama will transport you into an elite house of courtesans ruled by the scheming Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala). Her position of power is rattled when a new rival (Sonakshi Sinha), the daughter of her nemesis, enters the picture and threatens to topple her position. The series, set in British-ruled India in the 1900s, also features accomplished actors such as Richa Chadha, Aditi Rao Hydari and Sharmin Segal. Gulf News spoke to Chadha, Sinha, Hydari, and Segal over a zoom video call to know more about the show, streaming on Netflix now, and here’s our key take-aways from the conversation with the fabulous quartet…

A still from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar', out on Netflix now.

Courtesans in ‘Heeramandi’ are like the Geishas in Japan…

Actress Richa Chadha was quick to clarify that courtesans aren’t sex workers with limited agency. The courtesans from Heeramandi set in British India had the right to choose their own patrons and were proficient in music, dance, and literature. “In ‘Heeramandi’ there were three categories of people. There were Tawaifs [courtesans] who were trained in music, dance, literature, poetry and had etiquettes… They were allowed to have their own quota [house] and could choose their own patron. And the patrons often carried pots of gold and she decided if he can be admitted into her house… My in-laws and their family are from Lucknow and the courtesans are very polished… Girls from educated families were often told to learn a few things from them – on how to appreciate music/dance or seduction.” She even describes them as “celebrities”. “If they stepped out of a new Tonga (horse carriages), all would be looking at what she’s wearing and the jewellery on her. It’s only much later when the British started to have sway and started calling them ‘nautch’ girls… The decline of the royal patronage, these courtesans had nothing else to resort to… Lines then began getting blurred.” Rao Hydari, who describes courtesans in this series as India’s answer to Geishas from Japan, believes that they are the uncrowned queens. “Empowered queens without patriarchy sitting on their heads is how I describe them best,” said Hydari.

A still of 'Heeramandi' with actors Richa Chadha, Manisha Koirala and Aditi Rao Hydari

Being a Sanjay Leela Bhansali heroine is a career-defining moment for all actors:

Aditi Rao Hydari, who plays the delicate courtesan Bibbojaan, believes that Bhansali is invariably attracted to stories that showcase empowered women. “He loves women who are unapologetic and empowered. He gravitates towards stories that can be regaled with great artistry and flair,” said Rao Hydari.

Sharmin Segal, who plays Alamzeb, believes that Bhansali has this incredible knack of presenting women with great dignity. “Whether it’s a sex worker in ‘Gangubhai Kathiawadi’ or a Tawaif [courtesan] in ‘Heeramandi’, that man knows how to dignify every shade of a woman. He appreciates feminine energy,” said Segal.

Actors Aditi Rao Hydari and Fardeen Khan in 'Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar', out on Netflix now

Sonakshi Sinha, who plays Farida -- a character with grey streaks -- calls it her career’s “funnest” character:

Sinha, who made her debut with Salman Khan in ‘Dabangg’ and topped it off with a variety of films including ‘Lootera’ and ‘Akira’, claims she was craving to do something “drastically different”. “With this role, I get to portray a range of emotions like anger, rage, vengeance, jealousy, and all things that we consider bad but what makes us human,” she said. According to Sinha, Farida is on call to stir stuff up.

Sonakshi Sinha in 'Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar'

Richa Chadha saw ‘Heeramandi’ as a golden opportunity to break away from stereotypes:

If you look at Chadha’s catalogue of movies, it’s a mix of gritty festival-favorite movies. But there’s more to her than that “gareeb-cinema” [poor-cinema] template. “I have been perceived differently by different people because of the parts I have done in the past. The risks and experimentation in my career have caused a certain kind of stereotyping. I wanted to break that strategically… And Mr. Bhansali saw me in a different light without an audition or anything. Many heroes have told me I can’t lip-sync to a song… But he saw me differently.” These women enjoy a spirit of sisterhood that’s not fake or transient… When you think of an ensemble cast filled with several actors, you imagine that the filmmakers had to deal with multiple egos. But the women claim that they had no such issues like ego clashes among them. “The sense of sisterhood was effortless and we didn’t have to try hard to cultivate it,” said Rao Hydari. Chadha was relatively more pragmatic. “Personally, I don’t think that you can make friends on every set, but it really helps if there’s one alpha on set and that was Bhansali… He’s like the boss and we were on call to execute his vision,” said Chadha. But what really helped was that she admired every woman on that set. “Ours is not some fake sisterhood where we go, ‘Yas Queen’ to each other… Our bond is real.”

Don’t Miss It!

‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’ is streaming on Netflix now.