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Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Feminine Odyssey; Chandramukhi to Gangubai - Love, Rebellion, and the Grandeur of Agency

As the first look of Heeramandi makes its way to the internet, we look back at the women in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s world who know ‘agency’. 

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Feminine Odyssey; Chandramukhi to Gangubai - Love, Rebellion, and the Grandeur of Agency
Stills From Sanjay Leela Bhansali Directorials

Last Updated: 11.39 PM, Feb 02, 2024


Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is a name synonymous with grandeur and opulence, with massive hanging chandeliers and meters of fabrics dancing to the tunes of the breeze he controls, the glitz and shine of the jewelry, and the metal that defines the setup. Between all of this, there always sits a woman, longing for love. So hopelessly in love that she knows no boundaries, but what she always knows is her agency. 'Agency'—a word cinema has used too loosely when it came to women in films, but Bhansali was always aware and alarmed to give the ladies in his world power even at the most vulnerable.

Be it Maria (Helen) in Khamoshi The Musical, who gave the voiceless a voice and sold her piano to fund her family only to dance at its joyous funeral, or Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, who was dented in love but always had the choice in her control no matter what. For a filmmaker, as revealed by himself, brought up by brave women, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one of those rare folks in the business who never saw a woman just as a damsel in distress; there was always rebellion and fire that kept going.

So now, as he brings to us a complete clan of women with Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar on Netflix, let's take a look back at 7 of the strongest women the filmmaker shaped, and some of them didn't make it to the mainstream list even. Don't expect Leela, Padmaavati, and the usual names you are thinking of; you have been warned.

Gulaab Ji From Saawariya (2007)


Available On: NA.

Not many understood what SLB was trying to do with Saawariya. But one thing all of us will agree on is how brilliant Gulaab Ji (Rani Mukerji) was. It was her dream, the entire world where the clock moved anti-clockwise, and temple bells were heard in a Muslim household. A righteous old lady lived next to a brothel, and she was at the center where it all seemed real. Gulaab asked for love, she even got it, but she was also strong enough to walk away from it to not see the man she loves walk into doom.

Gangu From Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)

Available On: Netflix.

The most recent of his work, Gangubai Kathiawadi was about the Madame of Kamathipura who fought all odds to give the sex workers their right to live, study, and exist. Gangu rose to power and was a polished diamond through hardships. Again, hopelessly in love, but the strength in her said she needed to be dedicated to a bigger cause. So much about this character beamed power and it did strike the right chord with the audience.

Annie From Khamoshi The Musical (1996)

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

Strength in Annie (Manisha Koirala) was not visual but in the way she had grown up in a household with two mute and deaf parents. She sang but with no one in her closed ones to listen to her. Khamoshi is the power of that silence, and Annie showed the same to us. A story so deep and moving that you must watch it if you haven’t. Watch the video of Yeh Dil Sun Raha Hain.

Sofia From Guzaarish (2010)

Guzaarish Poster
Guzaarish Poster

Available On: Google Play and YouTube (on rent)

Sofia (Guzaarish) dedicated 12 years of her life as a nurse to a once charming man who was now crippled. All she could think of was his well-being. But that doesn’t mean that was all to her. She was also a woman who had eloped from the clutches of an abusive marriage. Even at her vulnerable, she bounces back for the man she has been at service to and in love with. Guzaarish is a tale that must be seen.

Chandramukhi From Devdas (2002)

Available On: Jio Cinema

Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) lost her everything with Devdas, her last hope. The story might have been about Devdas and Paro, but it was Chandramukhi who shined. A woman who sits amid men with the intention to lure them with her grace but I’d also capable of showing them their place if they cross the line. She has the right to say no, and school people who cannot take no for an answer.

Michelle From Black (2005)

Still From Black (2005)
Still From Black (2005)

Available On: NA.

Michelle (Rani Mukerji) found a professor who showed her the light. But once she found her light, she became a person of her own with a heart and mind in control. That last speech in Black is what defines how strong this woman is even at the most vulnerable point. Yes, the strength is triggered by a man, but the torch is taken ahead alone and like a boss. Black will always remain the most underrated Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie.

Kashibai From Bajirao Mastani (2015)

Available On: Jio Cinema

Bajirao and Mastani fell in love, but what was Kashi’s (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) fault? Why did she suffer the brunt of the heat that in a way burnt her world? The pain in her demeanor is everything, but the decisions she makes at every point keeping that pain aside is what defines Kashibai. One of the most complex and beautiful characters written in period dramas.

Heeramandi will hit Netflix soon in 2024. Stay tuned to OTTplay for more content like this and everything else from the world of streaming and films.