What were film journalists like in the Bombay of the 1940s? We read and hear, of course, about the K. A. Abbases and the Saadat Hasan Mantos of the time. But what about the mere mortals; the hacks and the newshounds? A fascinating answer is provided by the first episode of Jubilee, in which a prying reporter, snooping around for a scoop, gets chased away with a stick by a stern studio hand. An instructive little detail. The indignities of this profession, and its ceaseless hustle, are nothing new.
Later in the series, more journalism: the editor of a reputable newspaper fawning over a screen goddess. A radio host peppering his chat with a sensational male star with a set of nakedly flattering fan questions. Or – my favourite – a film review declaiming that whatever a debutant actor-director lacks in technique, “he more than covers up for with sincerity”. And it’s not just journalists talking in dulcet tones. Politicians, diplomats, social workers; everyone is looking to curry favours and gain a measure of influence in the film industry. We’re shown a complex web of interlocking interests, a soft nexus holding up an incipient soft power.
The series begins in 1947, in the tense buildup to Independence. Binod (Aparshakti Khurana) is a fixer and assistant at the thriving Roy Talkies film studio in Bombay. His boss — the debonair, pipe-smoking Srikant Roy (Prosenjit Chatterjee) — sends him on an urgent errand to Lucknow. Srikant’s wife, Sumitra Kumari (Aditi Rao Hydari), has struck up an affair with Jamshed Khan (Nandish Singh Sandhu), a talented theatre actor. Jamshed is about to be launched under the Roy Talkies marquee as Madan Kumar (“Khans don’t become stars,” Binod explains to a stranger). Srikant worries the liaison will foil his plans, and has instructed Binod to safely escort his wife and her paramour back to Bombay.
If you’ve seen the trailer — or know of a certain similar scandal from the 1930s, involving names like Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar — you can predict what happens next. Lucknow unfolds like a noir-ish fever dream, with a grisly accident and a riot breaking out. Jamshed, under mysterious circumstances, disappears from the face of the earth (this bit is pure fiction, or at least I hope it is). And Binod, who secretly harbours hopes of becoming an actor, is made the next Madan Kumar.
Directed and co-created by Vikramaditya Motwane, Jubilee is long and lustrous. Like Rocket Boys, it attempts to tell a story of India by zooming in on one of its defining institutions. In the wake of Partition, Jay (Sidhant Gupta), a driven, penniless refugee from Karachi, takes up employment in the Roy Talkies canteen. He’s reunited with Niloufer (Wamiqa Gabbi), a dancer and sex worker from Lucknow, now trying out for small roles in the movies. Their aspirations, as ever, don’t match their material lives: Jay lives in the squalid refugee camps, further segregated into ‘Sindhi and ‘Punjabi’ quarters. Niloufer, doing marginally better, subsists as the mistress of a rich seth (Ram Kapoor).
For 10 episodes of considerable length, Jubilee circles these characters and their shifting fortunes at or beyond Roy Talkies. It gets exhausting; the characters, though well-written and performed, lack the snap and bite of a truly gripping ensemble. More involving, then, is the finer detailing around the edges of the story. Musical sequences, we learn, were recorded live in the old days, resulting in their stagey look and feel (Srikant ventures a solution by introducing lip-syncing). One of the tracks concerns a power struggle between Russian and American agents trying to push their propagandas onto Indian film. There are other foreigners still; a German filmmaker working at Roy Talkies is clearly modeled on Franz Osten, the Bavarian director of films like Achhut Kannya and JeevanNaiya.
Jubilee has a heavy visual hangover of Bombay Velvet (2015), down to the jazz clubs, the shiny vintage cars, and the incriminating photographs everyone passes around as bargaining chips. There is a sonic hangover as well; Amit Trivedi has composed the songs. Though the characters swear a lot, most enjoyably when invoking Madan Kumar’s name, the treatment of the series is wholly reverential. Motwane does not mock or satirise any of the stalwarts of that era. Perhaps he should have leaned in that direction; the funniest character in Jubilee is Binod’s eccentric younger brother, a playback singer who’s pulled into a reluctant acting career. Guess who that could be?
Boxed in unnaturally at his cabin or screening room, Prosenjit Chatterjee as Srikant Roy does not get to flex his acting muscles in full. Aparshakti, in his first major dramatic role, is wonderfully-collected and grim, even as he telegraphs Binod’s mounting paranoia and guilt. Wamiqa Gabbi cements her reputation as one of the most promising, and frankly stunning actresses of our time. And Ram Kapoor is simply glorious as the greedy but practical-minded seth. When a fight breaks out in the fifth episode, he promptly intervenes, offering ready solutions to the squabbling parties. The business of cinema, he argues, will benefit each and all, so there is really no reason to fight. Movies solve everything.
The first five episodes of Jubilee are currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video