ELLE Digital Cover Stars: A Glimpse Into The Secret Lives of Courtesans Of Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar

They say all that glitters is not gold. But in celebrated auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s cinema, every element is larger-than-life– from the sets to the star cast and, of course, the storytelling. So it is no surprise that his next project, the much-anticipated period drama Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, in collaboration with Netflix, is more ambitious in scale.

The web series–with a stellar lineup of actors like Manisha Koirala, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Richa Chadha, Sanjeeda Shaikh, Sharmin Segal, Shekhar Suman, Fardeen Khan, Adhyayan Suman, and Taha Shah Badussha–marks Bhansali’s foray into the OTT arena.

On Richa Chadha, Manisha Koirala, Sharmin Sehgal, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sanjeeda Shaikh, Sonakshi Sinha: Full looks by Shyamal & Bhumika. Jewelry by Caratlane. Heels (Sonakshi Sinha) by Fizzy Goblet

Since the trailer for Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar was released in April, there has been much curiosity about what’s brewing in the sizzling red-light district, where Mallikajaan (Koirala) rules over an elite house of courtesans.

While she fears no one–tension simmers with the return of her late nemesis’ daughter, Fareedan (Sinha). Outside, the city is at the centre of a revolution demanding India’s freedom from British rule. One of Mallikajaan’s daughters, Bibbojaan (Hydari), dives into this battle, while her youngest, Alamzeb (Segal), harbours dreams of love with the son of a nawab, Tajdar (Badussha).

On Aditi Rao Hydari: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Necklace and ring, both by Amrapali Jewels.

Amid a backdrop of betrayal, forbidden desires, and India’s pre-independence struggle, there’s a clash of the titans–Mallikajaan and Fareedan–for the crown of the ‘queen’ of Heeramandi. We chatted with the star cast of Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar to learn more about each character, the experience of working with an ensemble cast, and more.

The Character Arc

Interestingly, Koirala and Bhansali have reunited after a 28-year hiatus after Khamoshi. This time, her role in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar is starkly different from anything she’s played in the past. As a senior courtesan in the series, she was required to exhibit different shades of her personality–from manipulation to love and compassion.

“Mallikajaan can go to any extent to save someone she loves, and there’s an air of mystery that she exudes. It’s not something you normally see in projects; either characters are portrayed as black or white. In the series most of us have shades of grey,” shares Koirala with ELLE India

On Manisha Koirala: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Ring & bracelet, both by Caratlane.

Commenting on Bhansali’s style of filmmaking, she says, “Sanjay is someone who improvises a lot. That’s also why there’s so much depth to the character.”

On the other hand, Bibbojaan, played by Hydari, is a woman of substance with a heart of gold. She’s beautiful, gentle, and strong-willed.

“There are so many aspects to her that I relate to. She is fearless and stands by her choices. The juxtaposition of an incredibly kind and gentle girl with a simmering passion and agency towards her higher purpose was challenging and incredibly fulfilling to bring to life,” says Hydari. 

On Aditi Rao Hydari: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Necklace and ring, both by Amrapali Jewels.

Sinha’s character, Fareedan, is equally nuanced and layered, much like all of Bhansali’s women. “It’s an honour that he chose me for this part…he’s seen something in me that I could bring out as an actor and do justice to.”

However, Chadha’s role is quite different from the rest. Lajvanti, or Lajjo, as she’s lovingly called in the series, has a deep appreciation for dance, poetry, and music. She’s liked by everyone until she commits the ‘cardinal sin’ of falling in love with her patron–which then becomes a cause of caution for everyone in the house.

On Richa Chadha: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Necklace, earrings, ring, all by Caratlane.

“While a woman must serve her patron and entertain them with music, etiquette, and embroidery, she must never fall in love,” she quips.

The strength of an ensemble cast

Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar plays on the strength of an impressive ensemble cast– a trend that is slowly but steadily beginning to define Bollywood or OTT projects.

For Shaikh—who plays the character of Waheeda in the show—collaborating with different actors whose knowledge and expertise were unique–-added value to her craft.

On Sanjeeta Shaikh: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Earrings by Abhilasha Jewellery Collection. Ring by Ruhhette.

“Everyone has a different approach towards acting and yet when we all came together, our common goal was to enhance each other’s performance,” she reiterates.

Segal, too, believes that if not for Bhansali, it would have been impossible to get this repertoire of actors for Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar. “When you know Sanjay sir is backing you, and that’s the kind of storytelling I think most people would be willing to put themselves out in that world.”

On Sharmin Sehgal: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Earrings and bangles, both by Abhilasha Jewelry Collection.

It was also an exciting experience for Koirala. “The energy on the set, respect, and admiration amongst us–particularly with the young girls I worked with- was inspiring. I see their focus, hard work, and longing to excel in their work…it’s always great to work with actors who take their job seriously,” she comments.

Elevated storytelling

For most of these actors, the opportunity to play such nuanced and fleshed-out characters has resulted from powerful storytelling.

Hydari shares, “Growing up, I wanted to be a Mani Ratnam heroine. As I watched more cinema, I discovered and enjoyed all the NRI love stories…However, I yearned for stories and narratives that felt like our own and rooted in our culture, celebrating the essence of who we are as people, our generous hearts, and the richness of our heritage.”

On Richa Chadha: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Necklace, earrings, ring, all by Caratlane.

“I think we’ve arrived at that juncture today. The cinema we are creating today feels like a celebration that is so uniquely Indian and authentic,” she adds.

Shaikh agrees. She points out that the audience is finally ready for new concepts and actors–thanks to the emergence of OTT.  “I think OTT is a medium that allows new talent and creative minds to explore unique ideas and concepts. Audiences are evolving with time, and they are looking for simple stories with layered characters,” she adds.

On Sharmin Sehgal: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Earrings and bangles, both by Abhilasha Jewelry Collection.

 Segal also believes that storytelling has become more character-driven today. That’s also because the new generation is unwilling to consume mediocre content; they demand substance.

“II think when substance is brought to a character or a story, it’s a game changer. Audiences are subconsciously seeking stories that are relatable or aspirational. The story is taking precedence today over many other things–that’s a huge transition,” she concludes.

On Sonakshi Sinha: Full look by Shyamal & Bhumika. Heels by A & S

 Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, created and directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is set to premiere exclusively on Netflix on May 1, 2024.

ELLE India Editor: Ainee Nizami Ahmedi, Photographer: Sahil Behal, Jr.Fashion Editor: Shaeroy A Chinoy (styling), Words: Geetika Sachdev, Asst. Art Director: Sanjana Suvarna (cover design), Bookings Coordinator: Anushka Patil, Brand Coordinator : Rhea Sanil, Assisted by: Jainee Bheda, Komal Shetty, Sanaaya Gajaria, Jasleen Narang (bookings), Production: Cut Loose Productions, Hair and Makeup: Shayli Nayak, Rami Halder (Richa Chadha); Ambereen Yusuf, Hair By Kaushall (Manisha Koirala); Dipak Nayak, Madhav trehan (Sharmin Segal); Elton J Fernandez, Shear Strokes By Shrishti (Aditi Rao Hydari); Tulsi Solanki, Muskan Khan Hair (Sanjeeda Shaikh); Heema Dattani, Sanish B. Tiwari, Madhuri Nakhale, Geeta Arora (Sonakshi Sinha) Saree Draper: Geeta Kanojiya (Richa Chadha and Sharmin Sehgal), Artists’ Management: Versis Entertainment, Teerta Shetty (Richa Chadha); KRI Entertainment, Aditi Kampani (Manisha Koirala); Collective Artists Network (Sharmin Segal and Sonakshi Sinha); Sandhya Ramachandran (Aditi Rao Hydari); Nikita Panchal (Sanjeeda Shaikh)

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