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Netflix's 'Heeramandi' brings unwelcome attention to Lahore's red light district

Most 'Heeramandi' fans, however, are in India, where they won’t be able to visit the site of the show due to severe restrictions on travel to Pakistan. Instead, they’re paying homage online with dances, costumes, and drag shows inspired by the series.
Last Updated : 26 June 2024, 07:41 IST

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By Betsy Joles

An imaginative take on the Indian subcontinent’s once-vibrant courtesan culture has become a hit for Netflix, drawing attention to a stigmatized neighborhood in Pakistan’s second-biggest city — and not all residents are happy about it.

Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, directed by well-known Indian filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, portrays the decadent lives of tawaifs, or courtesans, who in the show entertain and seduce power brokers to aid in rebellion against British rule in pre-Partition India. Heeramandi premiered in early May, and was one of the top-viewed non-English shows worldwide for four consecutive weeks.

The series title refers to the Heera Mandi neighbourhood in old Lahore, the cultural hub of Pakistan. A blend of history and fiction, Heeramandi depicts the glitz and glamor of the area, with its grand mansions, or havelis, that housed dancing girls. But Heera Mandi’s few streets are better known today for its shoemakers, audio equipment rental stores and its seedier side.

Khalid Mehmood, a 60-year-old resident of Heera Mandi who has run a music shop there for 40 years, observed the area empty of performers over time and develop a reputation as a red light district.

“Back in the day, all Pakistani musicians would come work here. This is where they would gain recognition,” he said. “Now my children do not even come here because people do not think it is a good place.”

On a recent Saturday, a few visitors on a tourist street near Heera Mandi said they had come to visit the area because they watched the show.

“The whole series was good,” said 18-year-old Qasim Naveed, whose family also owns property in the area. He said some residents are happy to see Heera Mandi getting attention, even if the show took creative liberties with the portrayal of the place.

But others fear renewed attention on Heera Mandi could be damaging.

One 35-year-old resident said she avoided telling people where she lived, and requested anonymity due to discrimination she has faced from her association with the area. Her teenage son doesn’t invite school friends home because of Heera Mandi’s reputation, she said, and struggles to socialize. Some of her relatives, she added, are also involved in sex work in the area.

Heera Mandi became a hub for music and dance during the Mughal era when courtesans were esteemed for their contributions to India’s classical arts. Tawaifs continued to have a strong presence in the area during the subsequent period of Sikh rule ending in the mid-1800s and through colonial times when their standing as artists took a hit.

Though it continued to be an important center for performing arts in the decades following Partition, Heera Mandi also became a focal point in the sex trade for former dancers pushed to the margins by rising conservatism in Pakistan under military dictator Zia ul-Haq.

Fouzia Saeed, who authored an ethnography on Heera Mandi, said police crackdowns in the area during Zia’s rule put a damper on the performances once held there. This led families of dancing girls away from Heera Mandi and into more underground work.

“These people were transforming their businesses into brothels,” Saeed said.

Long-time residents say Heera Mandi has suffered a similar fate to many parts of Lahore’s historic quarters that have steadily fallen into disrepair. Its decline also happened in parallel with the growth of Lahore, which has nearly quadrupled in population over the past four decades.

“The place was getting smaller and more congested,” said Yousaf Salahuddin, whose family owns a sprawling haveli in the area and has witnessed the exodus of residents from Heera Mandi. “The new areas were built and this place was left to rot.”

Among those who migrated away from Heera Mandi were former dancing girls and musicians, like singer Noor Jehan, who is memorialized with a plaque over her former home.

Most of Heeramandi’s biggest fans, however, are in India, where they won’t be able to visit the site of the show due to severe restrictions on travel to Pakistan. Instead, they’re paying homage online with dances, costumes, and drag shows inspired by the series.

This popularity is partly due to a keen interest among Indian viewers in stories from Pakistan, said Hasan Zaidi, a filmmaker and journalist. Unable to travel, citizens rely on film and television to learn about each other. Later generations of Heera Mandi performers even taught themselves to dance from Bollywood films.

“It used to be all pirated stuff,” said Zaidi. “Now because it's all on streaming, people do watch it in India.”

Netflix announced this month that the show would be renewed for a second season, but some locals wish the lore attached to Heera Mandi would die out.

Zerka Tahir, a social entrepreneur who founded a communal hub for young people living in the area, said Heera Mandi’s reputation continues to have real-life consequences for its residents. Children there are marked from an early age by the stigma associated with the neighborhood, and Tahir worries that the series will only make shedding this image harder.

“First we give them a bad name, and then we don’t let them escape it,” she said.

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Published 26 June 2024, 07:41 IST

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