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Narendra Modi and Sanjay Leela Bansali have something in common: they both view Pakistan through warped lenses.  Modi’s perception of Pakistan is of a neighbouring country overrun by trigger-happy terrorists on the lookout for Indian soft spots to attack. Bansali uses his camera lens to create spectacular falsities. His latest is an eight part Netflix series on Lahore’s red-light area, known as Heera Mandi. (Incidentally, it derived its name from Raja Hira Singh, a favourite of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.)   

Bansali – an irrepressibly talented filmmaker, producer, writer, and composer – is the despair of his critics. He challenged them with films such as a saccharine adaptation of Shakespeare’s romance Romeo and Juliet, giving it the title Ramlila. It invoked the ire of some orthodox Rambhakts. He was forced to change its name, elongating it to Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela.

His detractors made him run the gauntlet of the Delhi High Court, and then the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, which, a week after the film’s release, banned the movie's showing in Uttar Pradesh. Despite these obstacles, GKRRL became the fifth highest-grossing film of 2013.

Bhansali's next project Bajirao Mastani (2015) extolled the love between the Maratha hero Peshwa Bajirao I and his second wife Mastani. The descendants of Bajirao and Mastani disowned that film, claiming 'that excessive creative liberty by Bhansali caused wrongful portrayal of their ancestors’. The Bombay High Court, when approached for a stay, tactfully refused. Again, Bansali answered his critics when this film became one of the highest-grossing Indian films of all time.

Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018) pulled out of oblivion the 13th century Rajput ruler Rawal Ratan Singh of Mewar and the Delhi Sultanate’s ruler Alauddin Khilji. Both vied for the beautiful Rani Padmini (aka Padmaavat). In a fiery finale, Bansali had Padmini lead a horde of Rajput women, trapped within Chittorgarh fort, to commit a collective jauhur (self-immolation).  

Extremists did not wait for the pyre to cool or Bansali to finish his film. During its shooting in Jaipur in 2017, stalwarts from the Shri Rajput Karni Sena assaulted Bhansali, his crew and damaged the sets. Later, another group burnt a studio and the expensive period costumes. Bansali revenged himself when Padmaavat became the highest-grossing film of the year.

Bansali’s latest production Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar is his personal brainchild. He gestated the idea for fourteen years, then directed it, co-authored the script, composed its music, and produced it as a mini-series for television.

The story is set in Lahore’s Heera Mandi during the late 1940s. It deals with the travails of the tawaifs or dancing girls as they struggle first for social acceptance, and then political acceptance. In a belated burst of patriotism, they march through Lahore’s streets, their ghungroos (ankle bells) jingling on staves, demanding freedom (azadi) and independence from their erstwhile British clients.

Apparently, Bansali wanted Pakistani actors to perform in the film. Politics intervened. Not that Pakistani actors could have provided a shield against the first charge hurled by Bansali’s critics – its lack of historical authenticity.

Many Lahoris and those outsiders who love it will not recognise the social topography of Bansali’s Heera Mandi. Even in a pre-1947 era, Lahore was not a poor cousin (as Bansali would have his audiences believe) of Lucknow’s cloying culture and fawning finesse.

His multi-lingual cast parrot their Urdu dialogues passably well but ignore the niceties of proper pronunciation. His numerous heroines are gorgeously dressed; his muscular male actors often undressed; and only the lower orders - the maids and a Sikh love-sick swain - speak Punjabi.

His dancers swirl like dizzying dervishes, imitating their older sisters in earlier Muslim social dramas, particularly Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah. His men inexplicably wear furry caps once popularised by the late actor / Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M.G. Ramachandran.

Over the years, Lahore’s Heera Mandi, like its denizens, began to lose its allure. Trade shifted from Lahore’s old city to newer locations, giving way to Lahore’s Food Street. The kothas that once resonated to the sound of ankle-bells are now pricey restaurants. London's Soho, after the 1970s, underwent a similar transformation - from steamy fleshpots to steaming cooking pots.

Some readers may recall that in 1959, the U.K. promulgated the Street Offences Act. It made loitering and solicitation in a public place an offence. Its aim was to clean British cities of importuning streetwalkers. The comedian Peter Ustinov questioned its utility, suggesting that cleaning the streets was rather like clearing the table after a meal: ‘One has to put the crockery somewhere’.

Over the years, the crockery from Lahore’s Heera Mandi has moved to richer exurbia. If that Heera Mandi exists at all, it is as a fictional red light suburb of Bansali’s technicolour mind.



DAWN, 16 May 2024

16 May 2024
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