Does Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Heera Mandi' Uphold Women's Dignity?

While the series might appear to celebrate these women, it ultimately portrays them as scapegoats, trapped in a cycle of sacrifices that are rendered meaningless. A particularly disturbing example is a scene where Mallikajan resigns herself before the English officers to be gang-raped, framing it as a noble sacrifice for getting her daughter released from their custody.
Heeramandi of present and past
Heeramandi of present and pastGraphic- The Mooknayak

New Delhi- "Heera Mandi," produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, offers a poignant exploration of the lives of prostitutes and their intricate relationships with the Nawabs of the era.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of British colonialism and India's fight for independence, the story of "Heera Mandi" delves into themes of betrayal and exploitation.

Released on Netflix on May 1, 2024, the series has quickly become a subject of widespread discussion.

The women in "Heera Mandi: The Diamond Bazaar" are depicted with remarkable elegance, adorned in traditional, intricately designed jewelry and costumes.

However, their beauty serves as more than mere aesthetics; it underscores their complex characters and narratives. Critics have hailed the series as a ground breaking portrayal of sex workers, while others argue that it compromises women's dignity.

Nonetheless, Bhansali's recent works have been celebrated by his dedicated fanbase.

Set in the 1940s, "Heera Mandi" portrays a time when 'tawaifs' played a significant societal role. Despite their historical importance, it's crucial to recognize that this role was rooted in an anti-feminist culture. As society evolves, it may be time to reconsider the romanticization of such a past and instead focus on more empowering narratives for women.

Badshai Mosque and the Tomb of Ranjit Singh in Lahore (1858)
Badshai Mosque and the Tomb of Ranjit Singh in Lahore (1858)Pic- Wikimedia Commons

Historical Context

During the Mughal era, Heera Mandi was named Shahi Mohalla, and some called it Ada-ka-Mohalla. Courtesan rule prevailed in this locality, where Nawabs came for entertainment. Princes of royal songs were also sent here to learn etiquette and style.

Heera Mandi (Urdu and Punjabi: ہیرا منڈی‎, lit. 'Diamond Market') is a market located in the Walled City of Lahore, especially known as the red-light district. It is located inside the Walled City of Lahore, near the Taxali Gate, and south of the Badshahi Mosque.

In Bhansali's first web series "Heera Mandi" on Netflix, we are introduced to women who work as 'tawaifs.' 'Tawaifs' are women who put on spectacular shows of singing and dancing, adding a bit of glamor. Regular visits to their 'kothas' are somehow seen as a status symbol for the 'Nawabs.'

They are not mistresses or lovers but teach the art of love-making. One might assume that a woman living in this era and working as a 'tawaif' would lead a difficult life, but Bhansali repeatedly portrays them as the 'queens of Lahore.'

In "Heera Mandi," a character claims that 'tawaifs' hold significant power and are the true decision-makers behind the 'Nawabs,' yet the reality depicted in the series starkly contrasts this assertion. Alamzeb, who reluctantly becomes a courtesan, is uninterested in following her mother's path. Mallikajaan, the matriarch of the 'kotha,' exerts control over her domain, deciding when the most popular 'tawaif' should retire and resolving disputes between courtesans vying for the same man.

However, this control is illusory. The show portrays a disorganized society where Mallikajaan's authoritarian rule is challenged by those under her influence, all of whom seek to rebel in their own ways.

Beyond the confines of the 'Shahi Mahal,' these women are powerless. Even Mallikajaan, who seems to wield authority within the 'kotha,' is subject to the whims of the 'Nawab,' who can ostracize them at will. The police, too, can exploit and abuse them with impunity, highlighting the grim reality that these women, despite any semblance of control within their insular world, are ultimately powerless in the face of external societal forces.

Critics argue that, true to his signature style, Sanjay Leela Bhansali prioritizes the visual and aesthetic aspects of "Heera Mandi"—focusing on song and dance sequences, intricate jewelry, and elaborate costumes, elements that are likely to end up on Pinterest boards and in bridal dialogues—over the substantive portrayal of the lack of real power these women possess. While the series might appear to celebrate these women, it ultimately portrays them as scapegoats, trapped in a cycle of sacrifices that are rendered meaningless.

A particularly disturbing example is a scene where Mallikajan resigns herself before the English officers to be gang-raped, framing it as a noble sacrifice for getting her daughter released from their custody.

Another character 'Saima' sacrifices herself to save her friend from the 'tawaif' market, an act that also involves non-consensual sex. Bhansali romanticizes the notion of sacrifice, presenting it as noble without fully acknowledging the horrific torture these women endure and the fact that they never achieve true liberation.

This portrayal glosses over the brutal reality of their lives, suggesting a false sense of respect and dignity while failing to address the ongoing cycle of exploitation and suffering.

There was a time in Indian cinema when female characters were portrayed as 'poor, helpless women,' existing merely as wives, sisters, or mothers serving the men of the story. They were repeatedly taught to sacrifice themselves for family and society. However, we moved on from this narrative. Female characters began to gain independence, agency, and were no longer viewed solely from the male perspective, a change audiences loved.

Similarly, male characters evolved beyond the stereotypical alpha-male trope. Yet, it seems we are regressing. Films like "Pushpa," "KGF," and "Animal" have resurrected the alpha-male archetype, while "Heera Mandi" has revived the sacrificial woman—an unfortunate step backward, not worth celebrating.

Taxali Gate - Chowk heera mandi and Phajja Paye wala (Wikimedia Commons)
Taxali Gate - Chowk heera mandi and Phajja Paye wala (Wikimedia Commons)

Historical Story of Heera Mandi:

In French author Claudine Le Tourneur d'Ison's 2006 novel "Heera Mandi," Shahnawaz, a young boy born into a prostitution family, recounts his introduction to the red-light district of Lahore.

One night, Shahnawaz woke up to his mother's screams and saw her half-naked, shielding herself from an angry man's blows. Years later, he hears his mother singing for the same man and realizes she loves him. Soon after, his sister Laila is born. On her 12th birthday, Laila enters Heera Mandi society, her body adorned with jewels displaying her vibrant purity in a room full of lustful men.

She was dancing, then a conversation begins. Shahnawaz is surprised and angry to learn that Laila's virginity was sold to the same man who had beaten his mother more than a decade back.

Prostitution in Heera Mandi

Prostitution in Heera Mandi, Lahore, is a family business, passed down from mother to daughter ruthlessly, openly, and without any shame. Unlike the glamorous version depicted in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's recently released Netflix series "Heera Mandi," the real history of the region is much darker.

Heera Mandi is full of contrasts. This famous settlement, littered with dilapidated buildings and Byzantine streets, is located in the northern corner of the walled city next to the Lahore Fort.

While Heera Mandi was once a thriving market, a playground for royalty, and a home for artists and prostitutes, today its balconies are deserted, its shops in disarray, and the sweet tinkling of bangles has been replaced by the silent hum of machines.

A Tawaif entertaining Mughal nobility (Wikimedia Commons)
A Tawaif entertaining Mughal nobility (Wikimedia Commons)

During the reign of Emperor Akbar, Lahore competed with Delhi and Agra as a symbol of Mughal India. Aristocrats and their female escorts paraded past the Lahore Fort, crossing Heera Mandi (then known as Shahi Mohalla), and passing through the Alamgiri Gate to reach the vast, intricate grounds of the Badshahi Mosque.

Although orthodox Islam forbids dancing and singing, the Mughals were great patrons of the performing arts, employing thousands of performers to entertain the royal courts.

Louise Brown, sociologist and author of The Dancing Girls of Lahore (2005), explains, "Dancing and singing were considered forms of refined culture, and patronage of the arts was a symbol of Mughal status."

Rashid Makhdoom, a senior advisor at the Aga Khan Development Network, tells The Indian Express that under Mughal rule between the 16th and 18th centuries, both dancing and prostitution were permitted. He states, "Islamic culture has included concubines for centuries," adding that "they were considered not just part of the family, but part of the household."

Courtesans or royal courtesans, known by different names, held an important position in Mughal India.

Trained by top masters and highly skilled in music, dance, and other cultural activities, these courtesans were influential, sophisticated, and valuable.

As historian Pran Neville writes in Nautch Girls of the Raj (2009) , "They were part of the entourage of kings and nawabs...Associating with a courtesan was considered a sign of status, wealth, sophistication and culture... .No one considered her a bad woman or an object of pity."

Courtesans were also exceptionally independent women by the standards of the time. Their power and social mobility can be gauged from the civil tax records of Lucknow between 1858 and 1877, which show that courtesans were the largest and highest tax payers.

While most women were not allowed to own property or inherit property, tawaifs during the Mughal period were economically independent and in control of their lives and choices.

Before the 18th century, Mughal power in Punjab had weakened due to repeated Afghan invasions under the leadership of Ahmed Shah Durrani. Under Afghan rule, royal sponsorship of courtesans ended, with traditional concubine/mistress culture fostering prostitution.

However, after Durrani's death, Lahore passed into the hands of the first Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, Ranjit Singh, known as Sher-e-Punjab (Lion of Punjab). Tawaif culture never recovered from the decline of Mughal rule, but under the Sikhs, it enjoyed a slight revival.

Singh himself fell in love with a Muslim nautch girl named Moran Sarkar and faced social outrage when he married her at the age of 22. Moran is not mentioned in most historical accounts, but he is buried in the Papad Mandi area inside Shah Alami Gate, Lahore.

According to legend, one day, Moran was heading to Pul Kanjari, a village on the Indo-Pak border, for a dance performance when her shoe fell into the canal she was crossing. Enraged, she refused to perform until a bridge was built over the canal. Mohit Singh complied, and the bridge, named Moran, still stands at that location.

Under Sikh rule, Lahore embraced two legacies, becoming a vibrant center for the performing arts and a hub of night time illegal activities. Historian Prakash Tandon, in Punjabi Century (2023), describes Heera Mandi as quiet and deserted during the day but bursting into dazzling life after sunset.

According to Tandon, the life of these girls began in the late afternoon, waking up to roam the streets of Heera Mandi, exchanging stories with shopkeepers and musicians. In the evening, they undertook their cleaning duties, including bathing, applying powder, and grooming. Once ready, they awaited instructions from their mother or mistress, hoping for an evening visit away from home or, ideally, to be "taken to Kashmir or some other distant place" as a companion pretending to be a homely wife.

Similar to the Mughal period, these women enjoyed considerable social status. JNU professor Lata Singh, in her article Visible the Other in History (2007), notes that women ran large establishments in Lahore, training musicians and dancers alike.

These women were often former prostitutes who, after attaining wealth and fame, could hire and train other dancers.

The men from the establishments—cleaning staff, bodyguards, tailors, and others—resided one floor below the dancers and acted as their guards. According to Singh, "Boys became destitute and completely dependent on their mothers and sisters."

It was during Sikh rule that the Red Light Area of Lahore acquired its present name. After the death of Ranjit Singh, Hira Singh Dogra, a prime minister of the Sikh Empire, envisioned converting Shahi Mohalla into a food market, an economic center in the heart of the city.

The grain market established by Hira became known as 'Hira Singh di Mandi' (Hira Singh's market), gradually evolving into Hira Mandi. While many associate Heera Mandi with the Urdu translation of the word—diamond market—believing it signifies the beauty of the women living there, its origins were more innocent.

Sikh dominance over Punjab transitioned to the hands of the East India Company in 1849. The British disapproved of dancing women (whom they referred to as dancing girls). An 1883 edition of the Punjab Gazetteer stated, "The dance is generally performed by hired dancing girls, and it is needless to say that it is a very dull and lifeless spectacle to European eyes."

Nautch Dancers (Wikimedia Commons
Nautch Dancers (Wikimedia Commons

The conservatism of the Victorian era also influenced this attitude. According to Neville, the British people "made no distinction between an accomplished professional dancing girl or devadasi and a common prostitute, calling both degenerate women." Suffering from an inferiority complex, educated Indians felt ashamed of their traditional arts.

Although some tawaifs continued to work due to the patronage of princely states, many were compelled to eliminate the dance aspect from their livelihoods and confine themselves to sex work under a veil of secrecy.

According to Saad Khan, director of the documentary Showgirls of Pakistan (2010), the British sought to assert their social superiority and undermine the legacy of the Mughal court by eliminating the cultural aspect of traditional dance performances.

Khan stated in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, "Mujra (Mughal dance) was equated with sex work and the dancers with prostitutes. This is a very generalized narrative that still exists today and affects the lives of women in this profession."

Contrary to its historical cultural significance, during British rule, Heera Mandi became known as a den of prostitution. Makhdoom explains that the red-light area emerged in 1914 when the British established a brothel in Heera Mandi to serve the soldiers stationed in the garrison at Lahore Fort. Most surviving buildings date back to that time, marking the beginning of the transformation of Heera Mandi and tawaif culture.

As Indian playwright Tripurari Sharma writes in A Tale from the Year 1857 (2005), "These women were a treasure trove of culture and expressions, but they were devalued, easily forgotten, and lost as a result, only seen as entertaining and available for sex work."

In the 1950s, dancers were legalized as artists by order of the Pakistani High Court, allowing them to perform for up to three hours every evening. Hira Mandi maintained its culture for the performing arts, producing some of the most famous stars of Pakistani cinema.

Pakistani playback singer Noor Jehan (Wikimedia Commons)
Pakistani playback singer Noor Jehan (Wikimedia Commons)

Although considered inferior to women from upper-class backgrounds, traditional artists of Heera Mandi became professional singers and dancers. Artists like Noor Jehan, Mumtaz Shanti, and Khurshid Begum trained in the now-famous neighborhood.

Prostitution, while looked down upon, maintained a slightly more acceptable nature even in the decades immediately following partition. Some women also followed the Mut'ah system of Shia Islam, in which they were allowed to sign temporary marriage contracts with multiple men.

Under the Mut'ah system, the duration of the marriage could be specified in advance, ranging from a few hours to a few years. During the marriage, the husband was required to support his wife financially, and in return, the wife provided sexual and domestic labor. When the contract ended, the obligations also ended, although the man was required to support any children born out of the marriage.

In a 2017 interview with Pakistani newspaper Dawn, a woman named Jugnu described her experience of mut'ah marriage. Jugnu has been married several times, often just for one night.

The men would collaborate with her father to arrange marriages, for which they paid around Rs 2,500 per contract. She explained to Dawn, "In those days, it was not easy for a man to get too close to a woman in a brothel. We were surrounded by our tabla player, shisha player, dhol wala, heroine, and the florist, and the money man also came. It was a courtship ritual to get to know the woman first. We were protected by our community."

This dynamic changed with the Islamization of Pakistan under President Zia-ul-Haq's leadership. Between 1978 and 1988, Zia introduced several laws banning music, dance, and other 'illegal activities'. Consequently, many families moved away from Hira Mandi, leaving only lower-class women, including refugees from neighboring Afghanistan.

Describing Heera Mandi as an area of stigma, Makhdoom revealed that as a child, he was not allowed to enter the market.

According to 2016 estimates by the United Nations Development Council, 12 percent of women in Pakistani prisons are incarcerated on charges of commercial sex work.

Zarka Tahir, founder of Communal Hub, a non-profit organization serving the children of Heera Mandi, spoke to The Indian Express about the current state of this historic area and unveiled many secrets.

Tahir insists that Zia's policies contributed to the spread of prostitution away from Heera Mandi, but the crackdown alone did not change the area. “Technology, education, changes in family structure, and disease affected the industry,” she says, “causing the old diamond market to collapse.”

Describing the area today, Tahir paints a bleak picture. Women of all ages can be hired, with women over 60 often selling their services for Rs 50 each.

“If they have a stomach ache, they go out on the streets and earn money just to buy a paracetamol tablet,” she says.

Gone are the days when Heera Mandi was a gateway to Bollywood. Even talented artists cannot become actors and singers anymore due to the stigma and constant drug abuse that prevent them from overcoming social barriers.

According to Tahir, at most they can become famous on sites like TikTok and Instagram.

According to Brown, today an ambitious girl who wants to succeed in the Heera Mandi would agree to a dance tour in the Gulf countries. Like the courtesans of the Mughal era, these women became less valuable as they aged, often forced to live lives of deprivation after multiple pregnancies and venereal diseases ravaged their youthful bodies.

They are sent away at a very young age. Tahir describes their plight as "consensual prostitution through contract", with girls born into a hereditary system forced in many ways to continue the family business. It is not uncommon for family elders to falsify birth documents and send girls as young as 13 to dance troupes in the Gulf, India, and Ukraine.

Recalling his conversation with a family in Lahore, Tahir shared a joke he was told: “When a girl is born in Heera Mandi, she should be named Cheque, because she will be responsible for the future income of her family.”

Tahir asserts that today's Heera Mandi is vastly different from the old dramas depicted in films and television shows.

However, according to people like Tahir, the lives of the women living there have always been romanticized, often to their detriment. From the courtesans of the Mughal era to the dancing girls of the British and the aspiring actresses of the Partition era, the prospects for the women of Heera Mandi are extremely poor.

Some become rich, almost respected, and move their families out of the area. Some marry or become permanent concubines of men with multiple wives.

Some earn fame and fortune for a short time in distant countries. However, most end up back where they started, in the dark of night, in the shadows, captive to the depressing allure of Heera Mandi.

Misrepresentation of Courtesans in "Heeramandi"

Manjari Chaturvedi, founder of The Courtesan Project, writes in The Indian Express about her thoughts on the film Heeramandi, “I have spent 15 years recreating the songs and dances of tawaifs and telling their stories – all while instilling respect for their art and making them. This has been done in an effort to remove the stigma associated. So writing this article in 2024 is heartbreaking.

With a big promotional budget, the backing of one of the largest OTT platforms and a production house, Heeramandi promotes a special version of the lives of courtesans to an audience that has little knowledge of their history.

She writes that, after watching eight episodes, all you remember is that those women drank too much, smoked, danced and sang, and were always looking for a "sahib" for sex and money. She kept planning or was looking forward to getting married.

Even if they did become powerful by doing all this, they would only use their power to plot against each other, and even commit murder. We never see him discussing Thumri, poetry or Dadra. We never see any master teaching them.

Where is the artist among them? Historically, there were various forms of entertainment: bhand, nakal, bahrupiya, tawaif, meerasin – each of these was a separate category. Courtesans represented the highest form of art, created with the elite in mind. And just like there are A-grade movie stars, B-grade and C-grade, they cannot be lumped together.

But, like the British, filmmakers put singers, dancers, sex workers all under one umbrella - "courtesan". Courtesans worked hard to hone their performing arts. It took years of learning to perfect one raga, one taal, one piece, which only a dancer or singer can convey.

The irony is that the courtesans of that time were solo artists. The culture of Awadh, its Nawabs, their manners, language, elaborate costumes have been put together in the setting of Lahore. No one knows whether we are looking at women from Lucknow or Lahore.

Tawaifs were well-educated, educated and accomplished women of their time. However, this series strangely shows him in a derogatory light. This gives people the impression that they were illiterate women who were only planning for sexual gratification. The irony is that the fictional character of Mallika Jaan is a cunning gentleman, if they read history they would know that there was a real Mallika Jaan, an accomplished poetess.

The director of the show said in an interview that he refers to history only to a certain extent and then his imagination comes into play. Well, it is clear that in his imagination courtesans are only for sexual satisfaction. They seem to be obsessed with the ritual of Nath Utrai (selling virginity).

Even the dance songs, which are traditional raga-based classical forms, are used just to tease and excite. The great arts like Thumri, Ghazal, Dadra, Chhota Khayal, Kathak which were associated with them have been lost amid the decline.

This was when there was Jaddan Bai, who ran a production house and made films, there was Gauhar Jaan who was the queen of gramophone records and a few years later there was Mukhtar Begum of Lahore, who was the queen of Parsi theater and Hindi cinema.

As a young Kathak dancer said after my class yesterday, “Didi, you talk about the dignity of the dance and music of the tawaifs and say that they used to do Kathak and Thumri. But, after watching Heeramandi, the common The audience will call us (Kathak dancers) sex workers."

Sadly, that's all this series will give us. This is what happens when you give creative freedom to tamper with history, that too with the most sensitive history of women.

Bhansali would have achieved something remarkable if he had examined and portrayed the beauty, grace, talent and uniqueness of tawaifs so as to inspire a rethink in the minds of people about their real worth, ignorance and prejudice. Women suffering from HIV/AIDS can be given their rightful place in Indian cultural history.

Heeramandi of present and past
Manipur Tribals Deprived of PMGKAY Rice for Months Due to Corruption, Warn of Protests
Heeramandi of present and past
Survey Report Revealing Decline in Hindu Population and Increase in Minorities Amidst General Elections Raises Validity Concerns
Heeramandi of present and past
Can Minorities Receive Reservation Based on Religion? What Does the Indian Constitution Say?

You can also join our WhatsApp group to get premium and selected news of The Mooknayak on WhatsApp. Click here to join the WhatsApp group.

The Mooknayak English - Voice Of The Voiceless