An upcoming Netflix Web series Heeramandi, directed by Indian director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is making news for several reasons. Just recently, Pakistani actress Ushna Shah raised her objection on why it was the Indian film industry that was coming up with a web show about events and lives of people historically based in Mughal-era Lahore, a city which is now in Pakistan. Ushna has raised this question because Heermandi tells the tale of generations of courtesans and prostitutes who lived in the walled city of Lahore during the Mughal time period. According to her, since Lahore is in Pakistan, India-based creators making a series on this subject means that they are mimicking something from the neighboring country. In her tweet, Ushna opined, “India has a plethora of rich culture and history to film! this is not theirs to make.”
What Is So Wrong with Ushna Shah’s View on Heeramandi?
Being part of Pakistan’s thriving showbiz and film industry Ushna is indeed right to ask her fellow creators why they were not making a film or drama on such a different subject like that of Heeramandi. However, objecting to someone from India picking up the project just because they are from another country is flawed at many levels.
First of all, Pakistan has a shared past with India, since both these countries got separated only seven decades before. When India will tell its history it will definitely mention the time period when Mughals ruled and also when they had their capital in Lahore, irrespective of the fact that Lahore is in Pakistan. Similarly, when Pakistan will tell its history it just can’t skip the mention of Mughals running the country from Dehli. Or, it just can’t omit the whereabout of the famous Dehli Sultanat because the city is now the capital of India, which is not only a neighbor but also arch-rival.
When a Twitter user reminded Ushna that the movie was based on the pre-partition era, she replied that it’s relevant to the Mughal empire on which Pakistani history was predominantly set. This would be like a Pakistani director making a film on Mahabharata.
She further came up with the point that the Urdu language with Frasi roots seems pretentious while used by Indians and just like Pakistanis can’t be good at Sanskrit, Indians can’t be good at Urdu.
It seems that Ushna fails to recognize the fact that Urdu was a language that has strong roots in Dehli, Lakhnow, and South India. The language was flourished in areas that are in India now. As far as it is a matter of accuracy than even the majority of Pakistanis can’t speak Urdu and Persian with accuracy with exception of a few. Thus creating a project that will use the language of three to four centuries back will require a similar level of research and effort from creators on each side of the border.
Is She Proposing to Start History for Pakistan from Mughal Time Period Only?
Even if Indians make a movie on Mahabharta then they will have to mention places that are in present-day Pakistan, particularly the areas which are the origin of Gandhara civilization. However, as per Ushna Pakistan’s history only starts from the Mughal era, so she will not have any problem with Bollywood making movies related to the ancient Indus valley civilization or battle between Alexandar and Porus that took place near present-day Jhelum.
Interestingly, the actress is not the only one in the country who has limited what kind of history should define the cultural influence in Pakistan. Many conservative scholars think that the history of Pakistan dates back to the day when Muhammad Bin Qasim conquered Sindh. So here, Ushna seems to have come up with another proposal for what ‘kind’ of history and from which ‘time period’ the countries of India and Pakistan should relate the most.
As far as the history of present-day Pakistan and India as separate and distinct entities are concerned then it indeed starts from 1947 or independence movement if one is to include the factors that led to the struggle for freedom from British rule and the formation of two nations on the basis of region. However, limiting the old history of Pakistan to Mughals whose rule started in 1526, and expanding the history of India from the time of Mahabharata which dates back to the 4th century just seems an injustice to the people of Pakistan.
What Is Valid about Ushna Shah’s Criticism?
Artists and creators can take inspiration from anything irrespective of the borders. Sanjay Leela Bhansali who is the director of Heeramandi is known for making movies related to history as evident from the likes of Padmavat and Baji Rao Mastani. So, here is just another project for him that relates to a different time period.
However, Ushna who is part of Pakistan’s showbiz industry is right to question why the Pakistani film and drama industry can’t come up with such a project. A few months back another Pakistani actor, host, and comedian Yasir Hussain had asked why Pakistan was not making such movies or dramas. The answer may seem in the fact that there is a strong censorship culture in the industry. There is no doubt that the Mughal period sees a huge mention in history textbooks but it is only limited to their rule, contribution towards art, architecture, wars, and other such aspects. Making a web series like Heeramandi will be around the theme of prostitutes and sex work in the Mughal era Lahore; this may not go well with those who want to tell about the past within limitations that are narrower than those defined by Ushna. Further, Pakistan has a history of banning projects that don’t make much sense.
Shows like the Zee5 web series Churails, which was banned in Pakistan due to substance and vulgarity in the content have turned out to be demotivating for filmmakers. There is an opinion that making movies on bold topics will always remain an issue in Pakistan since a certain faction that can be powerful enough will neglect the concept and focus more on somewhat unethical aspects.
Another Pakistani film Zindagi Tamasha faced bans and a halt in release due to criticism from certain religious factions. Despite winning big at some international film festivals the film is yet to be released in Pakistan.
It is a matter of how much institutes are strong enough to allow creating movies on diverse subject matters; if this is achieved then Pakistani creators can come up with projects that can tell the tale of Gandhara, Indus Valley, and Mehar Garh civilization despite the fact that they had nothing to do with Muslim or Pakistani roots.
What Heeramandi is All About?
Since Heeramandi is just in the creation phase probably, most of the things about the plot have been assumptions. As per media reports, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has mentioned that the imminent season will cover the facts about courtesans. Moreover, the series will be about the prostitutes that used to live and work in the brothels. It will particularly shed light on the politics within those brothels and the unexplored facts related to the location. Sanjay also described how it will be a good idea to share the details of that remarkable time and the beauty of its essence in the present era.
As far as Bhansali’s comments about his project are concerned, he talked about his inspiration behind pursuing the Heermandi series. It was his friend Moin Bag who presented him with a 14-page story about the place and its cultural aspects. he also said that Netflix admired it and claimed that the web series has a bright future as it might become a mega-series one day.