Manu Joseph: The fabled charms of heritage red-light areas are bogus

Bhansali is often accused of making the past more beautiful than it was and his characters more spectacular than real.
Bhansali is often accused of making the past more beautiful than it was and his characters more spectacular than real.


  • Do historians over-rate history? In many places, history is the first to go. It erodes at the speed of time.

I don’t know if Sanjay Leela Bhansali has been to Heera Mandi, but I have. This olden-day bazaar and red-light district of Lahore is the subject of a Netflix show by him. It is set decades before my visit. By the time I got to Heera Mandi, it could have been the sets of a Ram Gopal Varma production, not Bhansali.

I was in Pakistan in 2004 to cover a historic cricket series. In Lahore, it was inevitable that someone would offer to take me to Heera Mandi. By then, the place had gentrified enough for the offer to be respectable, but still something of its ‘red-light’ part was alive enough for Indian cricketers not to visit, at least publicly. For instance, Rahul Dravid, who had thrilled Pakistanis by demonstrating his curiosity by visiting Mohenjo Daro, stayed away from Heera Mandi.

I was a bit nervous because of an incident a few days earlier. I had noticed that on street corners, hawkers sold pornographic CDs whispering, “Indian, Indian." Mystified, I asked what happened to Pakistani films. Such a thing, I soon understood, was not asked even by locals. 

No matter the actual provenance of the movies on sale, they were all called ‘Indian.’ Worse, it was clear I was Indian. I had to leave immediately. So I wondered how an average Pakistani on the street in Heera Mandi would react to an Indian entering a house of ill-repute. I wondered how long I would take to say in Hindi that I was there just for the dance performances, assuming that was okay.

At the time of my visit, and probably even now, Heera Mandi was bustling with life till the early hours, which was not unusual for Lahore because it had a thriving late-dining scene, probably to compensate for having no public drinking. Lahore had places that looked like pubs, where a hunk in a small tee would sit on a high stool, holding a mug, but with cola inside. 

Its restaurant scene, though, was way ahead of Delhi’s or Mumbai’s. There was a place where you could eat as many groundnuts as you wanted and throw their shells on the floor, while Pakistanis dressed as cowboys gave you dirty looks to sustain the cowboy theme.

There were such posh restaurants in and around Heera Mandi. As I got talking to the locals there, an odd recurring element emerged. Several people claimed to be descendants of famous Pakistani men in history who had visited Heera Mandi. Now, Pakistanis are among the funniest people I know, so I wonder if that was a part of their poker-faced humour or they were trying to con a journalist. Or were they serious?

Heera Mandi was a network of narrow lanes near a mosque built by Aurangzeb. Music filled the air. Flanking the lanes were old houses with little rooms filled with dozens of people watching Indian cable TV, except news channels, which were banned. In some rooms, three TV sets played with the audio of all at high volume. 

I was taken to one such room, where there were some musicians and a decorated young woman in a kurta and churidaar. I had recently learnt the difference between a churidaar and salwaar. A Pakistani fashion designer had told me that Indians didn’t know how to cut a churidaar and Pakistanis didn’t know how to cut a salwaar.

When I entered, the musicians came alive, and they shut the doors, of which there were several. And suddenly, we were alone with them and the woman in a room. They began to play what to my South Indian ears was nautch-girl music, and the woman began to dance in a ridiculous fashion, as though she was a feminist mocking me. It was the opposite of seduction. 

But then, even done right, that is the dance of nautch girls. She twirled, and we arrived at a Mughal cultural mystery. When you twirl, the kurta’s hem forms a ring. What was the big deal? It was just physics. Why was this some cultural high-point? I had seen the twirl in Mughal-e-Azam, and I am certain it is there in Bhansali’s films. The woman in the room kept dancing. I was 29, and I was bored.

Maybe I had been sucked into a tourist trap. Maybe behind some other door, there was something more sensuous, something straight out of a Hindi film. From what I could see, Heera Mandi was dull, and it was not as though I was from an exciting place—I lived in Mumbai then. I wondered where all the history had gone. 

People had told me that Heera Mandi was once filled with the most beautiful women in the world. And that they were well-versed in many arts. For some mysterious reason, courtesans in many countries were intellectually versatile, as though that was what men who went to red-light districts wanted—the renaissance woman.

In that place, there was no history. Of the history I had heard and read, there was no influence. Do historians overrate history? In many places, history is the first thing that goes. It erodes almost at the speed of time. Heritage survives only in all the things that are dear to the elite. Everywhere else, people don’t own their heritage, no matter how beautiful it is, and they replace it with something modern and grotesque.

Bhansali is often accused of making the past more beautiful than it was and his characters more spectacular than real. But there is a Bhansali in everyone who takes a tour of an old red-light district. There is something bogus about its charms, maybe because the people who love dead red-light districts would never tolerate a live red-light district. They are more in love with the deceased part than the red-light part. They wish to borrow some safe notoriety, or safe seediness, to make up for bad overpriced food.

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