‘Heeramandi’ True Story Explained: Who Created Heera Mandi? Is It A Red Light Area?

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The charm of the places your parents ask you not to go is undeniable as a teenager. I guess every small town (that is still connected to its historical past) has that lane (or galli) that has numerous stories around it. I once happened to gather enough courage to finally be able to walk down a “Kotha Galli” in my city, and I still cannot forget the impact it had on me as a child. I clearly didn’t understand the culture. Not because I was naive, but because I felt like a foreigner, even though I belong to this country. That’s actually what Netflix’s Heeramandi aims to explore: how a foreign entity failed to understand our culture and turned it into something despicable. As a nation, we have never respected our art or artists. We never tried to bring back the old tradition after the white-skinned people left. And “Tawaif” culture is one of those vanished art forms that “new-age” Indians never really understand because we still see it from the perspective brought in by the “foreigners.”


Brief History of Heeramandi

Let’s address the elephant in the room before going any further. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi isn’t based on any true story, though it does take inspiration from historical events. To begin with, Heeramandi, or Diamond Market, is a real bazaar (mandi) in Lahore, Pakistan (or India before partition). However, this market has nothing to do with diamonds. Heeramandi, also known as Hira Singh Di Mandi, is named after real-life Sikh General Hira Singh Dogra, who became the Prime Minister of Lahore during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and is often hailed as the great unifier of Punjab, or Sher-e-Punjab. Hira Singh, the birth son of a courtier, Raja Dhian Singh, became the favored minister of Maharaja Ranjit and received the title of Farzand-i-Khas.

No, I won’t bore you with a history lesson. That’s not how art should be approached. It is about understanding the conflict. In a nutshell, Hira Singh wanted to use Shahi Mohalla, located at the heart of Lahore, as an economic center and therefore turned it into a grain market after his Maharaja’s death. Since the Mughal period, Shahi Mohalla had been known for its courtesans, or Tawaifs, who hosted grand “mujra” events for the Royal Nawabs of the lands. Mujra is a sensuous dance form where women perform on various musical instruments like dholak, tabla, etc. But Hira Singh didn’t put an end to the cultural events hosted in the area. These performances continued to flourish until the British East India Company seized the lands after the fall of the Sikh Kingdom in 1849.

The arrival of the Englishmen in the walled city of Lahore brought drastic changes to the city. They favored the rich and powerful Nawabs and the Feudal Lords so that they could gain the confidence of the general public and maintain peace. But Nawabs didn’t have much of a role to play in the new setup and therefore spent most of their days in leisure, spending whatever was left in their piggy banks. They continued to spend money on grand Tawaif performances that lured them to Heeramandi through the art of poetry, music, dance and seduction, which Britishers failed to fathom. The Englishmen looked at these performances from a foreign lens and believed it to be a form of prostitution, and with time, their foreign interpretation of Indian culture ended up being a generally accepted notion to this day. It is to be noted that the aforementioned Tawaifs weren’t sex workers; they were elite dancers who used the artform in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Now, if you put yourself in the Englishmen’s shoes, Tawaifs’ mujra might not be something an invader would be interested in, because they were interested in some other kind of recreational activity. Under British rule, the Tawaifs lost their livelihood and soon turned to sex work to feed their hungry stomachs. The English invaders had set up a cantonment in the Anarkali area, which was in close proximity to Heeramandi. As the demand for sex workers increased, many prostitutes from all over the city and neighboring areas started renting the empty quarters of Heera Mandi, which were once occupied by musicians, singers, and Tawaifs.

In the post-British era, the location that was once known as the hub for cultural arts was turned into a red-light area where underage girls from neighboring countries were illegally smuggled and pushed into prostitution. During the 1980s, the then President of Pakistan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, launched an operation to put an end to illicit activities in the area, including mujra dancing, which further worsened the situation of the performing artists living in the area. Even the grain market setup during the reign of Hira Singh has now been shifted, and most of the empty shops are rented by shoe cobblers and street restaurants that are known for their delicacies.

In the end, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Netflix’s Heeramandi is going to be about how Shahi Mohalla turned to ruins after the advent of the East India Company. Additionally, the fictional story will revolve around the fierce and courageous Tawaifs, who used their influence to raise a rebellion against British rule to protect their lands and their integrity.


Tawaif’s Role in the Indian Freedom Movement

Netflix’s Heeramandi isn’t going to follow the true story of any particular courtesan who raised their voice against the English invaders. Especially not someone hailing from Lahore or Heeramandi. However, as per history, we do know of Azeenzubai, a courtesan who worked as a spy and played an important role in the Revolt of 1857 in Kanpur. During these times, Tawaifs held positions of influence in society and therefore tried to help the Indian revolutionaries with funds and information against their English enemies. For this reason alone, the British raided the Tawaifs’ apartments and levied heavy taxes upon them, thereby robbing them of their hard-earned money. They also implemented the Contagious Diseases Act, which gave them the opportunity to take strict action against Tawaifs and sex workers who were forcefully locked in hospitals after mandatory medical examinations. The English slowly attacked all segments of society and introduced the policy of divide and rule just to instill hatred in the community. Gradually, people started to look down upon these Tawaifs and considered them immoral, a concept that we still follow with pride.


Final Words

There have been numerous courtesans like Azeenzubai who sparked the flames of rebellion against British rule, but we don’t know their stories. Most of these voices have been deeply buried in the annals of history by our fellow English invaders. They used their most favorable tactics to make the general public detest Tawaifs and see them as disease-carrying sex workers. Even the ones who once pioneered in the art of mujra soon left the profession because society started seeing them in a new light. Ironically, it was a red light brought in by men wearing red uniforms under a “queen’s rule.”

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi is poised to be a thrilling tale about the role of Tawaifs in the Indian Freedom Movement, and we just want to see how much it influences people’s opinions about them. I just hope it isn’t another Bollywood drama that sees courtesans as mere objects made of flesh and bones and nothing else. Hopefully, it will restore their lost integrity, at least on screen.


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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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