Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar has premiered on Netflix and lives up to the grand sets and lavish costumes the filmmaker is known for.

The series is set in Heeramandi, a historical red-light district in Lahore.

It unfolds against the backdrop of the Indian freedom struggle against British rule.

The show features several plotlines – a murder investigation, a war of succession, a budding love story and a courtesan’s secret involvement in a rebellion against British rule.

Everything eventually converges around the main theme of anti-colonial nationalism.

 

 

Driven by nationalist fervour, the courtesans call themselves “patriots” and willingly sacrifice their careers and lives for the country.

But what is the real-life story behind the show and who were the real courtesans?

Role Models for Female Independence

The Real-Life Story behind Netflix's Heeramandi - role

Heeramandi takes creative liberties by distorting the lives and timelines of the historical courtesans.

The North Indian tawa’ifs (courtesans), or nautch-girls (dancing girls, as the British called them), were cultural idols, female intellectuals and entrepreneurs.

Dating back to ancient India, these women were trained in music, dance, fashion, poetry, etiquette, languages and literature from a young age.

Typically following the matrilineal inheritance system, courtesans passed down their professional knowledge and skills to talented daughters of the household.

Once trained, courtesans attracted patronage from royal courts, aristocrats and colonial officers.

Courtesans enjoyed privileges most women in Indian society did not have.

They led glamorous lifestyles, wielded power and wealth, and paid taxes.

As independent professionals, they contributed to Indian arts and culture, travelled extensively, connected with chosen kin and often embraced gender fluidity.

Their financial, political and sexual independence challenged patriarchal gender norms and restrictive moral laws that dictated the lives of women from upper-middle-class families.

Difficult Relationships

The Real-Life Story behind Netflix's Heeramandi - relationship

Heeramandi shows the courtesans turning patriotic to take revenge on the British for raping and killing their natives.

However, the historical relationship between courtesans, the British Empire and Indian nationalism was more complex.

Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) mirrors Azizan Bai, a courtesan who is believed to have funded the 1857 mutiny against the British East India Company.

The mutiny was one of the most widespread anti-colonial revolts of the 19th century.

But Indian nationalism was not its primary aim. Instead, it was a consequence.

Azizan was more interested in maintaining her patronage from the native rulers for her social and economic well-being.

After 1857, India’s governance transitioned from the control of the East India Company to direct rule under the Crown.

This led to the expansion of British authority throughout the country alongside the introduction of Western education and Victorian values.

Meanwhile, nationalist leaders envisioned India as a sacred land of Hindu heritage, emphasising the importance of purity and chastity, particularly in women.

This clash of imperial and nationalist ideologies clashed with the courtesans’ sexual freedom.

In the 1890s, Hindu reformers and bourgeois nationalists, alongside Christian missionaries, launched anti-nautch campaigns aimed at boycotting courtesans to supposedly safeguard art and culture from perceived moral decline.

Consequently, the courtesan class faced a decline.

In the Netflix show, patronage dwindled, aspirations of marriage dimmed and many courtesans reluctantly abandoned their careers, sacrificing personal desires for the greater national cause.

However, historical courtesans quickly reinvented themselves in the face of declining patronage and social stigma.

They turned to the power of modern technology.

Famous courtesan Gauhar Jaan became a celebrated singer and gramophone artist, earning the title of “India’s Melba” in the international press.

In 1921, Mahatma Gandhi asked her to perform for the Swaraj Fund in 1921.

Aware of the ambiguous position courtesans held in nationalist discourse, she agreed on the condition that Gandhi attend her performance. When Gandhi failed to show up, she contributed only half of the raised amount to the cause.

Courtesans played a major role in shaping India’s film industry, with pioneers like Jaddan Bai, Kajjan Bai, Akhtaribai Faizabadi, and Naseem Banu entering as actors, singers, composers, directors and studio owners.

Some later became managers and costume designers for their daughters.

In Heeramandi, a woman’s value is judged by her respectability, marital status and the presence of a male guardian controlling her sexuality.

Courtesans refer to themselves as “birds in gilded cages” and dream of freedom from their courtesan lifestyle.

The show portrays the courtesans as melancholic victims yearning for patriarchal married bliss while remaining marginalised in respectable society.

In actual fact, the real courtesans turned their resilience into a way of life and helped shape modern entertainment in the Indian subcontinent.