Sanjay Leela Bhansali Unpacks Success of Epic Netflix Global Hit ‘Heeramandi’ (EXCLUSIVE)

The verdict is out. The audience has spoken. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus debut series “Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar” is a global hit for Netflix, dancing to second position on the streamer’s worldwide non-English TV chart.

Spanning 1920 through 1947, the lavish story is set in the Heeramandi district of Lahore, British India, the milieu of the tawaifs. As with the geisha of Japan, tawaifs were trained in music and dance and courted by nobility. At the show’s center are Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala), the scheming queen of Heeramandi, and her vindictive niece Fareedan (Sonakshi Sinha), who has ambitions to take her aunt’s place.

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“Heeramandi” is Netflix’s biggest-budget Indian original to date and the biggest undertaking of Bhansali’s storied career. The filmmaker is no stranger to film hits, including his last theatrical release, 2022’s “Gangubai Kathiawadi.” While he is used to the ‘Friday report card’ as Indian filmmakers often describe the release day box office numbers, global streaming audience reports are a different exam altogether.

“‘Heeramandi’ was my first OTT [streaming] launch and I am blessed with all the love the audiences have given me, my technicians and my actors,” Bhansali told Variety from a holiday location where he’s taking a break after an intense production process that spanned 350 shooting days across three years. “I am grateful to Netflix for making the series available to audiences across 194 countries. Unlike a film where immediate feedback comes in the form of box office numbers, it’s very different for a series. The anticipation was filled with excitement and a sense of responsibility, and it was interesting to see that what we were creating was going to be presented to a global audience.”

“The reactions were overwhelming and heart-warming. What really stood out for me was that audiences have binge-watched ‘Heeramandi’ and even watched it twice or thrice over at a stretch. It was nice to see the kind of response we have received on social media and the kind of content people are creating around the show from different parts of the world,” Bhansali added. “The music of the series has struck a cord with audiences which is very rare for an OTT show. It’s also reassuring to see how people connected with the story, the life of these courtesans and the emotional journeys of the characters, regardless of their cultural background.”

Looking back at the process of “Heeramandi,” is there anything Bhansali would’ve done differently? “There is always a desire to refine and elevate your own work. But looking back at ‘Heeramandi,’ I am happy with what we have achieved,” Bhansali said. “I remember working on the post, editing and re-editing until the very last moment of delivery. But now, when I go back and watch it, I don’t think I would change a thing.”

Sanjay Leela Bhansali Heeramandi
Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Manisha Koirala and Sonakshi Sinha on the sets of “Heeramandi”

Bhansali’s next is “Love & War,” where he returns to films with a cast led by Bollywood megastars and real-life power couple Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, alongside Vicky Kaushal.

“It’s a love story that I’m making after a long time. A slightly contemporary work, different from the dances, pillars, architecture, drapes, curtains and jewellery [of “Heeramandi”]. It’s a new language, milieu and ambience for me,” Bhansali says of the film. “I needed [it] very much to excite me as a filmmaker to do something new, to speak of a different period, a different set of characters and new circumstances.”

“It’s nice to work with this wonderful cast of Ranbir, Vicky and Alia. It’ll be nice to see how their chemistry works. And [it is] a triangular love story, which has not come in Hindi cinema for a long time. So let’s see how it all shapes up,” Bhansali added.

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