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Enjoyable, sketchy, more fiction, less history: 'Heeramandi' generates debate in Pakistan

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Lahore, May 16 (PTI) When a show by one of Bollywood’s best known filmmakers is set in your city and centred around a locality that still exists, anticipation is high and reel-real comparisons inevitable. No surprises then that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar” has led to animated debate, panned and praised in equal measure by viewers in this Pakistan city.

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The eight-episode lavishly mounted show centres around six courtesans in pre-Partition Lahore’s red light district Heeramandi and their battles for power, revenge, ownership, love and their contribution in the freedom struggle.

The show by the director of sprawling costume dramas such as "Devdas", "Bajirao Mastani" and "Padmaavat" should be watched for its grandeur and glamour, but hardly does justice to the reality of Heeramandi, said several Pakistani viewers who were looking forward to the spectacle as much perhaps as OTT audiences in India.

Shoiab Ahmad, a journalist with over 30 years of experience covering showbiz, said he didn't find Lahore's Heeramandi in Bhansali's work.

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"The series was good in terms of production and glamour appeal. As far as Heeramandi of Lahore is concerned, it appears that this series was not made on real accounts of those living in this 'Bazaar-e-Husn' (market of beauty)... It seems to have been inspired by word of mouth or based on sketchy information," added Ahmad, currently associated with Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

Several Pakistani viewers posted their opinions on social media.

Like Hamd Nawaz, a Lahore-based doctor, who said on X, “Just watched Heeramandi. Found everything but heermandi in it. I mean either you don’t set your story in 1940’s Lahore, or if you do- you don’t set it in Agra’s landscape, Delhi’s Urdu, Lakhnavi dresses and 1840’s vibe. My not-so-sorry Lahori self can’t really let it go. (sic)” “To begin with, where exactly is it set? Lake Como? Amalfi Coast? The most evident landmark still visible from every building in today’s remnants of Heera Mandi is the Shahi Qilla-Grand Mosque’s doom and minarets skyline. If you call it Lahore, show Lahore (sic)” she said.

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Starring Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha, Sanjeeda Sheikh, and Sharmin Segal, Bhansali’s debut web series is streaming on Netflix.

There has been a complete ban on screening of Indian films in cinema houses in Pakistan since late 2019 but Pakistani fans can easily watch content from across the border on streamers.

According to Albar Mustafa, a resident of Lahore working for a digital media outlet, "Heeramandi" is a fantastic show with brilliant acting, especially by Koirala and Sinha.

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"The series beautifully captures the struggles and sacrifices during India's fight for independence. Bhansali's grandeur and storytelling make it a visual delight. It is a must watch that will surely move you and leave you impressed," Mustafa told PTI.

"Heeramandi" has been praised for its drama, production design, costumes, and the role of courtesans in the freedom struggle movement. On Wednesday, Netflix India said the series is "trending #2 globally" for two weeks in a row. The streamer had previously said "Heeramandi" became the "most viewed Indian series globally" in the first week of its launch.

A section of viewers, on both sides of the border, has also criticised the show for glorifying brothels as well as for its historical and linguistic inaccuracies.

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In the series, royal matriarch Qudsia, a character played by veteran actor Farida Jalal, says it's customary for nawabs to visit Heeramandi so that they can learn 'adab, nafasat, ishq' (manners, refinement, and love).

The courtesans, or 'tawaifs', were also the agents of art, dance, music, and poetry. With the arrival of the British, the nawab culture bit the dust and the status of Heeramandi's courtesans was relegated to "nautch girls" and their profession was often confused with prostitution.

Historian-author Majid Sheikh, considered an authority on Lahore's history, said Mughal emperor Akbar brought women from Iran, Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of now Pakistan to Lahore.

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"These women were educated and would impart dance and music to the elite class of Lahore and elsewhere," Sheikh said.

Situated in Lahore near the Taxali Gate and Badshahi Mosque, Heeramandi currently comprises a shoe market, a food street, and other shops with some families still residing there.

In the beginning, Heeramandi was called 'Shahi Mohalla' and was later rechristened 'Hira Singh di Mandi' or Heeramandi. Subsequently, it took the form of a red light area and was called 'Bazaar-e-Husn', he added.

According to Sheikh, there was a crackdown on music and dance establishments linked to prostitution during the regime of Pakistani President General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the early 1980s.

"The inhabitants of the place were forced to flee because of the moral policing. Later, Nawaz Sharif's government in Punjab followed in the footsteps of Zia and Heeramandi could not remain the same after the late 1990s," he said.

PR specialist Syeda Kanwal said it would be unfair to compare the real Heeramandi of Lahore with the Heeramandi shown in the series because "it is more a work of fiction than reality".

"Overall, it is a powerful and captivating series," she said, adding Hydari shines as Bibbojaan, a courtesan who moonlights as a freedom fighter.

Zahiruddin Babar, a writer, described "Heeramandi" as "a good work of fiction".

"The prostitutes in Lahore's Heeramandi were Punjabi but they were shown like that of a Lucknowi style," Babar said.

Advertising professional Qadeer Ahmad found the show quite enjoyable.

"In advertising business we say for a product promotion, there should be a feeling of ownership. And for this very reason, other Lahorities and I watched the series. I happened to visit Heeramandi in my early days of youth in the early '90s and I still remember some of the beautiful women there," he added.

While mostly nawabs were shown frequenting the streets of Heeramandi in the series, Ahmad said Hindu and Sikhs men also visited the area.

"I was amazed to see the end. It was a surprising twist as prostitutes supported freedom fighters... Freedom was necessary for them too. The production was terrific. It had Bhansali's inimitable style and the series did not disappoint me and my family." As debate mounts, “Heeramandi" additional director Mitakshara Kumar said everyone’s opinion should be valued but you can never make anyone happy.

“In my personal opinion, if we are representing history, there is a responsibility on us to bring as many historical facts as we can. 'Heeramandi' was not mine, it was Mr Bhansali's vision and he is known to take inspiration from history and then create his own world, his own audience,” Kumar told PTI.

Hydari, who has won praise for her role as Bibbojan, added that "Heeramandi" is not a historical but a series and hopes viewers watch it for what it is.

"Most of the people are making noise and it's just that. They have an opinion but I'm asking where your opinion is coming from? Do you have a lot of knowledge on filmmaking, or this subject, or art? You are entitled to your opinion, but I'm just saying don't be nasty," the actor told PTI.

Addressing varied reactions of viewers and critics, Sinha told PTI, "Everybody's entitled to their opinion and you can't please everyone... We are very happy to focus on the positives. On Instagram, it’s all about ‘Heeramandi’, the girls are imitating fashion, makeup, jewellery and making reels on the songs." PTI MZ RDS ATR KKP MIN MIN

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