Cast: Aditi Rao Hydari, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Aparshakti Khurana, Ram Kapoor, Sidhant Gupta, Wamiqa Gabbi
Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Rating: Four and a half stars (out of 5)
A Mumbai filmmaking era of great turmoil – and appreciable import – comes alive in all its glorious contradictions and curvatures in the beguiling Jubilee, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane.
The 10-episode Amazon Prime Video series weaves showbiz history, apocryphal anecdotes and tempered drama into its narrative tapestry to wonderful effect. Jubilee is, for good measure, embellished with a complement of songs redolent of 1950s Hindi film music.
The industriously crafted series, produced by Andolan Films, Reliance Entertainment and Phantom Studios, is consistently captivating. A benchmark-setting show in many ways, it blends finesse with flair to produce a hypnotic viewing experience.
Some of the plot elements that Atul Sabharwal’s excellent script incorporates are drawn from the annals of Hindi Cinema, the personalities it portrays have parallels, if only tangential, in the real world, and the larger context in which the story plays out is rooted in the domain of documented fact.
A studio head envisages playback singing. He alludes to the coming of Cinemascope. The government bans Hindi film songs on All India Radio. A hit parade is launched on Radio Ceylon to circumvent the injunction. But the rest isn’t necessarily history. Jubilee is laced with liberal doses of fiction.
Two superpowers jostle for a toehold in the Hindi Movie industry. K. Asif’s long-in-the-making Mughal-e-Azam is mentioned more than once. Gyan Mukherjee’s Kismet and Mehboob Khan’s Roti (two early 1940s hits) crop up in a conversation. Such true-life references are seamlessly factored into a free-wheeling reimagination of an eventful period of Mumbai’s showbiz past.
The spaces, the sounds, the props and the muted colours that Jubilee uses with a keen for detail impart a concrete, tangible quality to the period that the series evokes. The audience is transported as if in a trance to a time long gone. Jubilee captures the grind behind the glitz, the murky behind the magical, the dismal behind the daring, never losing its grasp on the mesmerising material.
The fallout of the Partition constitutes a crucial part of the show’s backdrop. An imperturbable star-maker and his associates, proteges, employees and rivals are swept up in a series of cataclysmic events they have no way of controlling.
Created by Motwane and Soumik Sen, Jubilee is a homage to the people who ushered in Mumbai Cinema‘s golden age. It spotlights moves and innovations that the industry made as it embraced the future. The series also examines the rise of the star system and its far-reaching upshots.
Roy Talkies, run by actor-proprietor Srikant Roy (Prosenjit Chatterjee), faces a wave of challenges posed by government diktats, commercial volatility and the Cold War. He resorts to a desperate throw of the dice to ward off the threats.
Jubilee spins a riveting tale of hubris and ambition, desire and deceit, success and failure, betrayal and comeuppance. Srikant Roy, his diva-wife, a nautch girl-turned-actress and two young men chasing stardom navigate a fast-evolving industry.
Jubilee captures six eventful years between the weeks leading up to August 15, 1947 and mid-1953. The industry, after negotiating decades of colonial rule, begins to adapt to the role of helping forge free India’s national identity.
The series opens with a voiceover that introduces Srikant Roy and his wife and business partner Sumitra Kumari (Aditi Rao Hydari). It is mid-July, 1947. The Mountbatten Plan to grant independence to India and carve up the subcontinent is announced. Violence erupts in Punjab and Bengal.
As tensions rise across India, Srikant and Sumitra’s latest film hits the screen. The studio uses the premiere to announce the launch of its next big star – a dashing, talented Lucknow actor, Jamshed Khan (Nandish Singh Sandhu). The young man is to be renamed Madan Kumar because, as somebody says, “Khan hero nahin bante na.”
Neither his studio nor his marriage is on an even keel, but for the imperious Srikant the former matters much more than the latter. He sends a trusted lab assistant, Binod Das (Aparshakti Khurana), to Lucknow to seal the deal with Jamshed.
Jamshed is reluctant to abandon theatre. Jay Khanna (Sidhant Gupta), a Karachi theatre owner’s son, wants to cast him in a play. Jamshed all but makes up his mind to spurn the Roy Talkies offer. Srikant resorts to underhand methods to force the actor’s hand.
The Partition riots spread quickly. Violence erupts in Lucknow, too. Binod takes matters into his own hands. So does Sumitra. Before he leaves for Karachi with Jamshed, Jay stops by a Lucknow brothel to watch a mujra performance by tawaif Niloufer Qureshi (Wamiqa Gabbi), who completes the quintet of characters around which Jubilee revolves.
Jay’s first encounter with Niloufer does not end well. But their paths cross again in Bombay after the two arrive in the city by train – one from Karachi, the other from Lucknow. Jay, now a refugee camp dweller, sets out to rebuild his life. Niloufer, too, works her way up in a city that gives her no quarters.
The hourlong opening episode of Jubilee is a marvel. Remarkably well written and structured, it sets the tone for the rest of the show. So self-contained is it in its circularity that it could well be standalone work.
The episode lays out the details of the plot with pointillistic precision. It introduces the five principal characters. It possesses all of the show’s key strengths – solid writing, restrained acting, adroit production design and dexterous direction. From here on, even when Jubilee appears to slacken a tad, it does not lose any height.
Jubilee is set 70-odd years ago but the themes it addresses are palpably contemporary. It probes the power of Cinema to influence minds. “Cinema can empower people,” says Srikant Roy, asserting that power does not stem from serving the government’s agenda but from wielding the weapon of Cinema “with all our might”.
That pointed pronouncement, as pertinent today as it has been at any other point in the medium’s evolution, is posited against the theory that a mass hero is duty-bound to be the government’s mouthpiece in the larger national interest.
Prosenjit Chatterjee is poise personified as a conflicted but resolute Movie mogul. Aditi Rao Hydari is luminous, lighting up the sepia-toned frames with her presence. Wamiqa Gabbi is splendid, too. She traverses a whole gamut – from the coquettish to the clear-headed to the careworn – with impressive ease.
Aparshakti Khurrana may not at first flush seem like the right fit for the role of a mould-breaking, interloping matinee idol, but he does a fair enough job of conveying the innate dualities of the character. Sidhant Gupta is a revelation as the brash and charming outsider who breaks into a closely-guarded charmed circle. Nandish Sandhu and Ram Kapoor, playing a glib film financier, deliver solid performances.
The soundtrack, studded with songs composed by Amit Trivedi with lyrics by Kausar Munir, is the show’s shiniest jewel. The compositions accentuate the distinctive tenor of the series. Ranging from the peppy to the romantic, from the melodic to the elegiac, the numbers draw inspiration from master composers of yore – Sachin Dev Burman, O.P. Nayyar, Shankar-Jaikishan, even Hridaynath Mangeshkar (who isn’t of the same vintage as the others) – and add up to a stunningly original array of sounds.
Alokananda Dasgupta’s sublimely sophisticated background score and Pratik Shah’s outstanding cinematography also contribute to making Jubilee an absolute, all-encompassing treat.
A celebration, a homage and a lament rolled into one, Jubilee shines a light on the breakthroughs and creative adventures that paved the way for one of Hindi Cinema‘s most happening phases. As much heart as craft, it is a true-blue dazzler, an accomplishment that demonstrates what is possible when art and soul come together in a near-perfect fusion.
(The first five episodes of Jubilee are now streaming. The remaining five will stream from April 14)