'Heeramandi' Review: Manisha Koirala Shines in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ambitious Yet Mediocre Series

Heeramandi isn’t Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s best work by any stretch of the imagination but it has its merits.

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Cast: Manisha Koirala, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sonakshi Sinha, Taha Shah Badussha, Fardeen Khan and more

Platform: Netflix

Rating: 2.5/5

‘Heeramandi’ is undoubtedly Netflix’s biggest Indian series of the year as it comes from ace filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali and features an ensemble cast headlined by Manisha Koirala. The period drama’s visually appealing trailer suggested that it would feature several highly intense dramatic sequences and a riveting screenplay complete with dark twists and betrayal. Moreover, given Bhansali’s impressive body of work, fans also expected it to feature grand dance sequences and soul-stirring music. So, did Heeramandi live up to the hype and redefine the tenets of the OTT space in India. 

What’s ‘Heeramandi’ About?

The eight-episode series centres on Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala), the ‘huzoor’ of Heeramandi who rules over the elite house of courtesans with an iron fist and fears none. She knows how to manipulate those around her to emerge as the victor. Mallikajaan is forced to connect with her dark past when Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha), her deceased sister’s daughter, returns to Heeramandi and proves to be a worthy rival to her aunt.  This sets the stage for an intense game of betrayal, manipulation, and love as the two women engage in a game of one-upmanship. 

The Show Needed a Better Screenplay

The basic plot is intriguing and features everything, right from elaborate dance numbers to confrontational sequences, that one expects from a larger-than-life period drama.  However, it fails to land a killer punch as the screenplay isn’t up to the mark. The slow pace further dilutes its impact. 

Well-defined characters and dramatic yet touching sequences are the hallmarks of Bhansali’s brand of storytelling. Heeramandi, sadly, doesn’t quite deliver on these fronts. The show features a plethora of characters but none of them, barring Mallikajaan and Fareedan, are fleshed out too well.

This makes it difficult for viewers to invest in the journeys. This is particularly true for  Lajjo (Richa Chadha). The character, who meets a tragic end, had the potential to come across as the female version of Devdas but this never happens as her backstory isn’t explored properly in the opening episodes. The middling writing also dilutes the impact of some inherently intense confrontational sequences. This is particularly true for the sequence between Mallikajaan and Fareedan after the ‘nath utrai’ ceremony. 

This is quite disappointing as Bhansali had previously pulled off confrontation scenes, between two female characters, with effortless ease in ‘Bajirao Mastani’. 

‘Heeramandi’ also has political undertones and is set against the Indian freedom struggle. Bhansali needs to be lauded for trying to deal with the sensible issue in his maiden web series. The results, however, are not as desired. The track involving the freedom struggle adds a new layer to the narrative. However, the subplot feels a bit undercooked as it often plays second fiddle to the other side stories. Similarly, the track involving the character called Saima and her turmoils gets lost in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, the makers could have devoted more time to Taj (Taha Shah Badussha) and Alamzeb’s (Sharmin Sehgal) budding romance.

That said, ‘Heeramandi’ has its merits as well. The sequences leading up to Bibbojaan’s (Aditi Rao Hydari) last performance have been executed with competence and do a good job of highlighting the game of oneupmanship at play. 

The show features two deaths in the first two episodes but they have been presented aesthetically. Moreover, there is no attempt to shock viewers with the said sequences. Given the subject and the setting, Heeramandi could easily have morphed into a sleaze-fest. This, however, never happens. Bhansali handles themes such as ‘virginity’ and lust with maturity. 

Manisha Koirala Shines Bright in ‘Heeramandi’

Coming to the performances. Manisha leaves fans spellbound with her swag and authoritative body language. Her scenes with Sharmin stand out as they bring out her character’s softer side. Sonakshi holds her own against Manisha, which is not an easy task. However, Sona’s performance feels a bit stiff at times. 

ALSO READ: ‘Heeramandi’: Sonakshi Sinha Pens Touching Note for Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Shares Photos From Premiere

Aditi is sincere in a role that, despite its potential, ends up being a bit one-dimensional. Richa gets limited scope to showcase her abilities. Sharmin isn’t quite able to internalise the character. Sanjeeda Sheikh delivers a sincere performance as Waheeda, the show’s dark horse. Taha puts his best foot forward but the performance doesn’t feel effortless. Shekhar Suman, Fardeen Khan, and Adhyayan Suman are burdened with one-dimensional characters. 

The Bottomline

Music is one of Heeramandi’s biggest pros. Songs such as ‘Azadi’ and ‘Phool Gendwa’ have situational appeal.  That said, the songs are not on par with what we have heard in Bhansali’s films. The cinematography is top-notch and brings the sights and sounds of Heeramandi to life. The other technical aspects, including the costumes and editing,  are above-average

To sum up, ‘Heeramandi’ isn’t Bhansali’s best work by any stretch of the imagination. However, it is not an unwatchable mess either. Manisha Koirala’s stellar screen presence and stunning visuals add life to the mediocre narrative and help it leave a decent impact. 

‘Heeramandi’ premiered on Netflix on May 1.