Lahore’s Leela and the fusion of the real and reel

June 9, 2024

How a visit to the famed city reframed my perception of a maverick Indian filmmaker

Cooco’s Den, Lahore. — Photos by the author
Cooco’s Den, Lahore. — Photos by the author


ver the years, I have been privileged to travel and explore many countries, some at length while others only briefly. And while each trip has brought its own revelations and gifts, it is my first and only journey to Pakistan that I often recall as my happiest.

Evolved as it did after a long, arduous process of applying for a visa as an Indian citizen, the week-long chance to visit the neighbouring country had glowed with a sense of unique anticipation right from the beginning. Even as I was increasingly moved by proof upon proof of the legendary Lahori hospitality for Indians, the distinctive manner in which the trip got indelibly stamped with a finer understanding of my favourite Bollywood filmmaker, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, than ever before, also stayed with me.

Floral motifs at the Lahore Fort.
Floral motifs at the Lahore Fort.

It was November 2018, and I had just submitted my PhD thesis at Cambridge. Within a week of doing so, I found myself touching Allama Iqbal Airport’s tarmac after a half-day flight from the UK, my primary objective being attending an international conference, titled Art, Democracy and Tolerance. The conference was organised under the aegis of Trust for the Heritage of Art and Architecture of Pakistan. Hosted at the elegant home of the organiser, Prof Pervaiz Vandal himself, the conference gave me the opportunity to present a paper on the controversial Hindi feature film, Padmaavat, by Bhansali, which had released earlier that year. Hence, the Bhansali connection — as I’d like to term my relationship with the artist’s work — literally served as the basis for my travel.

As the only Indian and only Hindu present at the conference, the prospect of reading a paper that argued against the Islamophobic interpretations of Padmaavat was ridden with a sense of anxiety. Only a handful of critics on both sides of the border such as Rahul Aijaz and Girish Shahane, shared my views. But as the conference unfolded I experienced a reception that I could’ve hardly dreamt of. What especially touched me was the attention on everyone’s part during my speech, at the conclusion of which a long line of listeners formed as if magically, just so that they could shake hands with me. It was a response and a gesture that still fills me with gladdening surprise whenever I think about it. Had Bhansali not made this complex film that had so strongly fired my imagination, I (of course) wouldn’t have written a paper on it. It was only natural then that my experience of Lahore evolved into an alliterative descriptor that I would use time and again with my friends and family back home: From Padmaavat to Pakistan.

But getting the opportunity to discuss the artistic and political merits of Padmaavat in an academic setting was just the tip of the iceberg. Once the conference was over, other references springing from and around the filmmaker’s oeuvre began to greet me during my exploration of the city. The biggest discovery in this regard emerged in the form of a dinner at a famous Lahori restaurant named Cooco’s Den. Before my newly made friend Adnan had settled me at a table on its open-air terrace, I was already entranced by the restaurant’s stunning design, artwork and location, all of which hummed with a sense of déjà vu. Soaking in the strategically placed statues of the Buddha and Mother Mary as well as the mélange of building styles deriving from the hybrid aesthetics of subcontinent’s architecture, not to mention the grandiose beauty of the Badshahi Masjid sprawling just across the road, I kept uttering to myself, “This is all so cinematic! I have seen all of this before!”

And surely, within a few seconds, I realised that I had indeed viewed such a cornucopia of intercultural aesthetics over a decade ago, in Bhansali’s 2007 film Saawariya. Widely labelled as one of Hindi cinema’s biggest flops, Saawariya had long struck me as an extraordinary narrative feat that was intentionally placed within a fantastical dreamworld, where Buddhist statues sit comfortably along with Islamic minarets, and where church bells, clock towers, sacred Hindu patterns, Renaissance and Mughal art liberally flow into each other. Here, at Cooco’s was another world that was intriguingly similar, with its vast array of artefacts copiously referencing a multitude of local and foreign cultures. Curated by the artist Iqbal Hussain, this old haveli-turned-restaurant was a mini-museum in itself that spoke of a stylised syncretism I had only associated earlier with the world of Saawariya.

Soaking in the strategically placed statues of the Buddha and Mother Mary as well as the mélange of building styles deriving from the hybrid aesthetics of subcontinent’s architecture, not to mention the grandiose beauty of the Badshahi Masjid, I kept uttering to myself, “This is all so cinematic!”

The Bhansali connection, however, didn’t end there. When I was told that Cooco’s literally lay in the vicinity of Lahore’s red light area aka Heera Mandi, the filmic relationship crystallised at an even deeper level. I instantly recalled that Saawariya, too, was anchored by its own fictional red light area, and that its story was narrated by Gulab Ji, a prostitute brilliantly essayed by Rani Mukherji. While here Bhansali had reimagined the Gulabo from Guru Dutt’s 1957 classic, Pyaasa, I found it impossible not to wonder if Cooco’s and its location had inspired Saawariya. I still don’t have the answer, but as everyone is now aware, Heera Mandi had stimulated the filmmaker’s imagination for almost two decades.


Cooco’s Den also had paintings that portrayed the lives of courtesans and prostitutes who inhabited the locality, making me speculate if any of these were a muse for Gulab Ji and her friends.

In my remaining travels in Lahore, I came across paintings of a different sort: murals and motifs sprawled across the magnificent forts and monuments of Lahore, just like in Bhansali’s films, where detailed painted walls are a constant feature. As I walked by the miniature images of Krishna, Radha and Ram at the Lahore Fort, my mind inadvertently reached the muralled sets and settings of Devdas, Ram Leela and Padmaavat. Viewing those exquisite frescoes, I recalled how, in several of Bhansali’s works, it was via paintings that he’d prepare his viewer for the ‘aura’ of his narrative, infusing them with a fluidity of movement and music during the prefatory title tracks themselves. Now, whenever I look back at my photographs of those frescoes, they always sing to me with the background scores of of Bhansali’s films.

The filmmaker has most recently been in the limelight for his first web series Heeramandi, which was released a few weeks ago on Netflix to extremely divisive reviews. While critics like Uday Bhatia and Nandini Ramnath completely panned the series, others such as Subhash K Jha and Baradwaj Rangan hailed it as a near-masterpiece. Of the many ‘flaws’ that are being vehemently discussed across social media, the most common is to do with the alleged ahistoricity of the series. The reviewers have noted that the show doesn’t truthfully depict the ‘real’ Lahore of pre-Partition India (in which the narrative unfolds).

Bhansali is as aware of this fact as anyone else. I for one have never approached his work in terms of ‘factual’ history lessons. Rather, I have enjoyed his oeuvre for the unique creative spin it gives to the legacy of Hindi cinema, often fantastical. I also delight in the habitual objects, gestures and motifs that bind the entirety of his oeuvre together. To encounter this panoply of aspects — from the politics of songs and dances to idiosyncratic use of architecture — in a new format is certainly among the highlights of Heeramandi.

But most crucially, and for all of Bhansali’s own emphasis on his cinema not being “socio-cultural critiques in the realistic tradition,” I felt that Heeramandi was unequivocally political, right from its promotional events. From launching the trailer on the eve of Eid, to repeatedly performing the adaab gesture (whether during this year’s Indian edition of the Miss World pageant where the main cast of the web series walked the ramp, or innumerous other media events), Heeramandi did something remarkable in the context of contemporary political scenario.

As national elections took on a heated discourse tapping into age-old right-wing vocabulary of Muslim bashing, the Netflix series made a powerful intervention by showing a thriving Islamic culture where Muslims simply existed as people. At a time when “Go to Pakistan” has evolved as an abuse for so many Indians, promoting the Lahori world of Heeramandi as a “global gift from India” (in the words of both the maker and the actors) undeniably struck as an act of moral courage.

As I exult in the beautiful similarities in the Pakistani song, Hum Daikhain Gay and Heeramandi’s Azadi, composed by Bhansali himself, I ponder on a recent statement by the director: “I still feel we [from India and Pakistan] are all one; I still feel that we’re are all connected in many ways.” My trip to Lahore also brought out the truth of this statement in more ways than one. I am glad for the presence of an artiste whose vision will readily remind me of the connections that were the links that are, and the bonding that will always be.

Siddharth Pandey is a writer, historian and artist hailing from the Simla Himalayas, India. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, UK. His academic and creative work has received acclaim both at national and international levels

Lahore’s Leela and the fusion of the real and reel