Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar – plot and reviews of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Netflix show

Ensemble cast includes Bollywood actors Manisha Koirala, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha and Sonakshi Sinha

From left, Aditi Rao Hydari as Bibbo, Manisha Koirala as Mallikajaan, Sanjeeda Sheikh as Waheeda and Richa Chadha as Lajjo in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar. Photo: Netflix
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Visionary Bollywood filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who is known for his grand productions, makes his series debut with Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar.

Released on Wednesday on Netflix, the show revolves around kothas, or houses of courtesans, in 1940s India. With the country's freedom struggle as a backdrop, it features an ensemble cast including Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha, Sharmin Segal and Sanjeeda Sheikh.

The show's whopping 2 billion rupee ($24 million) budget, according to Indian media, dwarfs some of the biggest Bollywood film productions.

Ted Sarandos, co-chief executive at Netflix, flew to Mumbai last February to unveil the show along with Bhansali, who is known for opulent dramas such as Devdas, Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat. Bhansali's last film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, was released in 2022 to wide acclaim. It was loosely based on the rags-to-riches story of gangster Ganga Harjivandas Kathiawadi, a mafia boss in 1960s Mumbai.

Heeramandi, like all of Sanjay’s stories, is not style over substance, but style and substance together,” Sarandos said.

Here's everything we know about the show so far.

What's Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar about?

Set in pre-Independent India, the series focuses on three generations of courtesans living in the Heeramandi neighbourhood of Lahore, now in Pakistan. Once a thriving diamond market, the area was transformed into a hub of prostitution during British colonial rule, where tawaifs or courtesans rule as queens, many of them wielding huge power and influence.

It centres on Mallikajaan, who rules over an elite house of courtesans, whose authority is challenged by Fareedan, the daughter of her late nemesis. Meanwhile, the city and country is roiling outside, as freedom fighters clash with British powers.

Mallikajaan’s older daughter Bibbojaan is determined to join the fight for freedom, against her mother's wishes, while her younger child, Alamzeb, dreams of love with the son of a nobleman and yearns to break out of Heeramandi.

“This is a story of love, power, freedom and extraordinary women – their desires and struggles. It marks a new milestone in my journey,” Bhansali said last month.

Who's in the cast?

Acclaimed actress Koirala, who was one of the top Bollywood stars in the 1990s, plays Mallikajaan. She leads a starry cast that includes Sinha, who plays Fareedan, Hydari (Bibbojaan) and Chadha (Lajjo), all known for playing strong female characters in their films.

Segal (Alamzeb) made her acting debut in the Bhansali production Malaal, while Sheikh (Waheeda) is an extremely popular TV star who's recently made the leap to films.

Abu Dhabi-born Bollywood actor Taha Shah Badussa also stars in the film, playing nobleman Tajdar, who falls in love with Mallikajaan's daughter Alamzeb.

Other cast members include Farida Jalal, Fardeen Khan, Shekhar Suman and his son Adhyayan Suman.

There are eight episodes in all, each nearly an hour each.

What early reviews are saying

Critics have heaped praised on Bhansali, who they say revels in the longer streaming format while retaining his signature touch, complete with sprawling shots and beautifully-designed set pieces.

The Hindustan Times points out Bhansali's juxtaposition of two warring central characters set amid India's freedom struggle as a winning plotline, writing: “He reiterates that there's no difference between freedom of the self and freedom of the nation, between romance and rebellion, between the micro and the macro.”

The Indian Express, meanwhile, says the show will remind viewers of Bhansali's seminal 2002 film, Devdas, which told the story of doomed love between a wealthy man and a courtesan.

“Bhansali and his brand of youthful heartbreak has always been a strong point of his narratives, but here, it’s when the older women are in full flow, opening up their hard-won chest of wiles and wanton-ness, that you stay with the show,” it writes.

Firstpost called the show “intoxicatingly beautiful”.

“There is something about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movies, where everything starting from the sets to the costumes are class apart,” it says.

India Today called the show “an actor's delight” praising Chaddha and Sinha's performances among others.

“Richa Chaddha’s Lajjo wins you over with her rawness,” it writes, adding: “Sonakshi comes into her own very early in the series. She’s an absolute treat.”

Updated: May 01, 2024, 9:40 AM