Manisha Koriala (centre), Richa Chadha (right), Aditi Rao Hydarai (left), Sanjida Shaikh (top row, right) and Pratibha Ranta (top, left) in 'Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar' Image Credit: Netflix

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s courtesan saga, ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’, is undoubtedly a grand spectacle filled with stunning women in dazzling jewels, opulent costumes, and sassy folks, but there’s a limit to which you can marvel at the awe-inducing visuals.

The eight-part episode series, featuring a lush cast like Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, and Richa Chadha, is painfully bland and uninspiring. You may marvel at the glittering chandeliers, the courtesan’s mansion, and the ornate dance numbers, but your hunt for a riveting storyline remains elusive.

You have seen it all before – warring women who will do anything to retain the throne and be the lady of the manor. Set in the 1900s in pre-Independence India, Manisha Koirala plays Mallikajaan – a wicked and megalomaniac matriarch who rules over her group of bodacious courtesans.

She runs a tight ship and takes great pride in commodifying her wards to appease the transactional feudal lords. She’s the kind of mother who would punish her youngest daughter (Sharmin Segal) harshly when she loses a single pearl from a broken necklace and then makes her feel infinitesimally small. She’s ruthless in consolidating power and has made many enemies, rightfully, along the way. 

A still from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's visually stunning series 'Heermandi: The Diamond Bazaar'

One such enemy who is desperate to destroy her is her own disgruntled niece Faridaan, played efficiently by Sonakshi Sinha. She was sold by her aunt at a young age to older men, but returns to Lahore’s Heeramandi, the famed red light district, to take down her exploitative relative.

In the background, there are rumblings of resistance against the British rule in India, and the series dwells into how these women became a crucial factor in India’s independence struggle. Ideally, the political intrigue and the wild, wanton women with torrid pasts and questionable jobs should make for some voyeuristic viewing, but the series fails to keep you hooked. You almost feel like you have seen it all before in movies like Vidya Balan’s ‘Begum Jaan’ or Bhansali’s own ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, in which matrons of a glorified brothel – where women have such old-world charm and can spew poetry -- wield immense clout over their area of work. Bhansali's signature blend of romance, fantasy and decadence are all there, but it lacks soul. 

But what works are the strong performances from the majority of actors. Koirala is charismatic and menacing in equal measure, while Sonakshi Sinha as the feisty Faridaan is a worthy opponent to her conniving aunt. Their ego tussle and their thirst for obliterating the other is fun to watch, but it’s stretched thin towards the end. By the time you trudge through the eight episodes, you forget why they even began loathing each other.

Be warned, the dialogues that are meant to sound poetic and romantic in Urdu seem verbose and heavy. The actors who are tasked with those dialogues don't fare well either. 

Sonakshi Sinha in 'Heeramandi: Diamond Bazaar', out on Netflix now

The casting of the other courtesans like Richa Chadha and Aditi Rao Hydari as women who have resigned to their fates of appeasing their feudal men’s artistic and carnal pursuits prevent the series from being an absolute misfire. Hydari as the ethereal and kind Bibbo Jaan seems like the perfect waif with a strong spine. Her vulnerability and resoluteness as she becomes politically charged towards the end of the series is interesting to watch. But her character arc isn’t wholly believable. The scenes in which she’s brutally tortured by the British for resisting their rule seem overly dramatic. 

Seasoned actress Chadha also shows how it’s done as the troubled courtesan addicted to alcohol and love. Her crime? She dared to get attached to her wealthy patron (Adhyayan Suman), who spurned her after making false promises. Chadha makes an impression despite having limited screen time.

Everyone is over-the-top at all points. Koirala and Sinha, both sworn-enemies, hiss and seethe at every given turn. They go dark on you for no particular reason. Why would a missing pearl set Mallikajaan (Koriala) her off on a violent streak is something that you may wonder about. My guess is as good as yours.

Fardeen Khan and Aditi Rao Hydari

There are many scenes that are supposed to be emotionally charged, but you don’t feel much. For instance, a scene like how Manisha Koirala’s character is brutally gang-raped by a group of English police officers should ideally be disturbing on several levels, but her grand entrance into their office is what you wonder and not the violence unleashed.

The weakest link of this series is the casting of Bhansali’s niece Sharmin Seghal in a crucial role. She plays the idealistic romantic, Alamzeb, without much vigour or charm. She wants to be a poet and shirks at the idea of being a courtesan like her troubled mum. But her dialogue delivery and her wooden expressions in emotionally-charged scenes needed a lot more work. She's got one of the strongest roles in the series, but Segal simply didn't have the charisma or screen presence to pull it off. Her bulbous lips (seemingly altered by a good surgeon), making you wonder if beauty enhancements were a thing in the 1900s, are also distracting.

The same can’t be said for actor Taaha Shah, who grew up in Dubai. He’s convincing as the young lad who falls in love with Alamzeb despite having reservations about her background. There’s a quiet confidence about his character that’s impressive.

Taaha Shah in 'Heeramandi: Diamond Bazaar'

Actor Shekhar Suman as the power-drunk feudal lord does what’s asked of him with aplomb. A scene in a carriage with Mallikajaan where he’s superbly inebriated hits the right notes. Actor Fardeen Khan, a gentry with some conscience, makes his mark. Actress Sanjeeda Sheikh as the jealous sister of Mallikajaan takes on her complex role and flies with it. Even Farida Jalal is impressive as Taaha Shah’s grandmother. We are told that these women who entertain men for a living have agency, but all of it is quite on the nose. Subtlety and nuance is not what you should be looking for in this series. 

The second half where these women jump on the independence struggle seems laboured and inorganic. While you can see the effort and the abundant resources that have been poured into this lavish production, you can’t help but wonder why the same attention to detail and beauty didn’t extend to the actual storyline. Beauty can be admired, but if there’s limited substance, then you get ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’. There's razzle-dazzle, but the shine wears off quick. 

Our GN Rating:

Series: Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Cast: Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Richa Chadha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sanjeeda Shaikh, Taaha Shah, Sharmin Segal, Farida Jalal

Streaming on: Netflix

Number of episodes: 8

Stars: 2.5 out of 5