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Jubilee review: Sprawling, fascinating look at a bygone era of Indian film

Vikramaditya Motwane's Amazon series Jubilee chronicles the rise and fall of a studio and the making and unmaking of a movie star

Sidhant Gupta in 'Jubilee'
Sidhant Gupta in 'Jubilee'

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There’s a scene in the third episode of Jubilee of little import that nevertheless lodged in my brain. Jay Khanna (Sidhant Gupta), a theatre artist and refugee, has worn out his shoes looking for work in Bombay. He stops at a roadside cobbler, asks him how much he’ll take to fix it. Four naya paisa, the man says, but softens when he realizes Jay is new in town and broke. “I can’t take advantage of someone whom god is showering with slippers,” he says, inviting the young man to sit, repairing his footwear gratis. 

After I finished the season (10 episodes, five of which are now streaming on Amazon Prime), I returned to the scene, curious to know why it stood out. Gupta, his embarrassment giving way to relief, is great in it, but I was even more taken by the stoic shoemaker. His act of kindness comes across as a moment of grace in tumultuous times, much like the tough theatre-owner who refuses to charge patrons for snacks on opening night, saying “Apni public hai (these are our people)”. It’s probably not a coincidence that writer Atul Sabharwal’s father was in the shoe trade—that scene carries a loving charge.  

Vikramaditya Motwane, director and co-creator, is also working with personal material here. His grandfather was in the film trade, producing a feature called Andolan that released in 1951 but has rarely been seen since. The series, too, is set in the post-independence era of Hindi cinema (a project with the title of ‘Andolan’ is floated). It's the age of studios, in particular one run by actress Devika Rani and her producer husband, Himanshu Rai. The studio in Jubilee is a thinly veiled version of Bombay Talkies, just as Shrikant Roy (Prosenjit Chatterjee) and Sumitra Kumari (Aditi Rao Hydari) are Rai and Rani in everything by name. Like the glamorous first couple of 1940s Hindi cinema, they are Germany-returned, urbane, tempestuous. And, taking off on Rani’s raging affair with actor Najm-ul-Hassan, then under contract at the studio, Jubilee is set in motion by Sumitra’s affair with actor Jamshed Khan (Nandish Singh Sandhu), who’s been selected as Roy Talkies’ next star.  

Only, Jamshed doesn’t want to be a star—he's happy in the theatre. So Roy sends his right-hand man Binod (Aparshakti Khurana) to bring both his star and his wife back from Lucknow to Bombay. Binod is a loyal servant and fixer with a secret ambition to be an actor himself. In Lucknow, amidst the turmoil of Partition riots, an opportunity presents itself, and Jamshed is removed from the picture. Back in Bombay, with only Roy watching, Binod does a desperate audition of the scene that got Jamshed selected. It’s enough for Roy to take a huge gamble—Binod will become Madan Kumar, the name they’d selected for the Muslim Jamshed (fittingly, there’s a Yusuf among the contenders to become Madan).     

Those who know their Hindi film history might guess that Binod—whose ordinary looks are compared unfavorably to, of all people, ‘haseen’ Prem Nath—is Ashok Kumar. To an extent this is this case, even though Khurana resembles Dilip Kumar more. Binod, now Madan, is, against all odds, a massive success in his first film, and is cast in several others with the unhappy Sumitra (Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani were a hit pair in the 1940s). He has a jokey younger brother who’d rather be a playback singer—a reference to Kishore Kumar. He’s described in one scene as a “raincoat-pistol hero”, the image Ashok Kumar developed after the 1943 smash Kismet

But Jubilee is interested in more than Bombay Talkies. You see this particularly in the character of Jay, whose initial appearance, as a charmer in a peaked cap, suggests Dev Anand. Later, as a somewhat tortured filmmaker, he has shades of Guru Dutt. He and Jamshed have an agreement that they’ll work together on his first film as director—the same pact Anand and Dutt made. The script Jay is lugging around is called ‘Taxi Driver’ (Anand starred in a film of that name in 1954), whose story resembles Aar-Paar, a 1954 noir made by and starring Dutt. As the series progresses, Jay is imbued with a few Raj Kapoor traits—he finds fame playing a common man, and is set up for stardom by the Russians. Both Madan and Jay make Raj Kapoor-like films, allowing Motwane and composer Amit Trivedi to do takeoffs on ‘Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua’ and ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’. A troubled Madan even stumbles into his own ‘Ramaiya Vastavaiya’, Trivedi reworking the Lata Mangeshkar-Hemant Kumar fishing song ‘Mi Dolkara Daryacha Raja’. 

One of the specific joys is the way Motwane and Sabharwal use every single piece of 1940s and early ‘50s Hindi film legend, rumour and ephemera they can lay their hands on: the porous boundaries between theatre, courtesan culture, and cinema; the rise and rise of playback singing; the competing interests of the US and the Soviet Union in using Indian cinema to their advantage. Sabharwal shows here, as he did in his own Class of ’83, a knack for blending historical events into fiction narrative. When Shrikant and Sumitra meet with potential distributors, the terms used are of the commodity market (“bhaav laga lete hain”). As Debashree Mukherjee wrote in Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City, “many of Bombay’s early film concerns were directly funded by profits from the cotton trade”, as “short term investors approached film as a commodity derivatives market”.  

Jubilee is, for better and worse, a sprawling series, interested in cinema and glamour but also the politics and social ferment of the time. I liked the sprawl—Shrikant’s attempts to combat the banning of Hindi film songs on All India Radio, which actually happened in 1952, is a particularly fertile tangent—but I can imagine some viewers would prefer a tighter focus on Shrikant, Sumitra (who remains a strangely peripheral presence), Madan, Jay and Niloufer, a courtesan who works her way up to lead actress and beguiles both the rising stars. Played with verve by Wamiqa Gabbi, she’s a Navketan heroine in her pluckiness and drive. Khurana is more effective as an ambitious foot soldier than as the movie star of everyone’s dreams; he’s an excellent Tom Ripley, but an inadequate Dickie Greenleaf. Gupta, though, is fantastic; you can see the star in him before Jay turns into one. 

Some of the writing is stiff—and the constant refrain of “Madan Kumar b******od” is more calculated than provocative. But there are moments when Jubilee doesn’t just speak of Hindi cinema but uses its words, its poetry. When Jay is told by another refugee that this is Bombay, where only chaar sau beesi works, it’s impossible not to think of Raj Kapoor’s immigrant in Shree 420. And when financier Walia (Ram Kapoor) says “Daav lag gaya na, taqdeer ban jayegi teri”, it’s like a summing up of ‘Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui’ from Baazi (1951). There aren’t many references to real film personalities of the time, but Jubilee can’t resist a Mughal-e-Azam (1960) joke: when Jay is taking too long with his film, he’s told “K. Asif mat ban.” 

We know from Bombay Velvet that Trivedi can do OP Nayyar pastiche; Jubilee shows he can approximate Shankar-Jaikishan as deftly. But the real star is Alokananda Dasgupta’s score, a constantly inventive commentary on the action. There’s a magnificent variation on Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. A montage in episode five starts with the rhythmic scrapes of a cello before a clarinet joins in and then strings. And there’s a bravura passage late in the series: typical Hindi film strings as an audience watches a film, then a triumphant orchestral movement as they cheer for Jay, which then becomes the obsessive sawing of a single cello as the scene transitions to a brooding Madan by the fireplace.

Streaming in India has done a terrible job providing access to classic films. The vast majority of black-and-white Hindi film fandom is dependent on dodgy YouTube uploads. There is, therefore, some irony in a prestige streaming series on a bygone era of Indian filmmaking, to be viewed on a platform that would never, ever show a Bombay Talkies title. Motwane finds an appropriate tone—not nostalgic but forensic. This is not a celebration, it’s an excavation.  

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