A Deep Dive into Jubilee’s Lady-Shaped Problem

The Prime Video web series has a lot going for it, but the way its women characters are written is not one of them. Warning: Contains spoilers
Aditi Rao Hydari and Wamiqa Gabbi in Jubilee
Aditi Rao Hydari and Wamiqa Gabbi in Jubilee

More than 80% of India is illiterate and the only way to reach them is through either cinema or radio, a wheeler-dealer businessman named Jotwani tells Shrikant Roy, the grand patriarch of the Hindi film industry in Jubilee. Jotwani is trying to convince Shrikant to collaborate with him to make propaganda films, surreptitiously backed by the Soviet government.

In the world of Jubilee, Roy Talkies is the most respected film studio in a newly-independent India. Owned by Shrikant and his actor wife Sumitra, it has to its name the blockbuster films of the era and the most popular star actor, Madan Kumar. The Soviets are eager to work with Roy Talkies to reach Indian audiences, says Jotwani, and in return, Roy Talkies will get a whole new market for its films in Russia. “We would like to make Madan Kumar a star in USSR,” says Jotwani’s Soviet partner. Despite being in debt and wooed by both the Russians and the Americans — both of whom would like to extend their respective country’s sphere of influence — Shrikant rejects the Soviet offer. He works with the Americans, but in a roundabout way. With Hindi film music being banned on All India Radio, Shrikant sets up a deal in which the American-backed Radio Ceylon, broadcasting from Sri Lanka, will have a programme of Hindi film music. It’s a move that benefits the entire Hindi film industry, rather than just Roy Talkies. 

When Shrikant is asked why he said no to making propaganda films, he’s driving through Bombay in his car with Madan Kumar beside him. The city of dreams, to which generations of people have come with little more than madcap plans and wild ambition, is a thing of blurs and reflections around him. He is the only tangible, clearly-outlined element in the frame. “Roy Talkies is nobody’s slave, and neither will it ever be,” Shrikant says in a fierce mutter.

In that moment, Shrikant, played by Prosenjit Chatterjee, embodies the dream of what the Indian film industry hopes to be — ruthless about profit, passionate about craft, and inviolable in its intrinsic idealism. Shrikant’s refusal to be the monkey who dances to other’s tunes — “I’m a monkey no one can ride,” he tells Jotwani — may be set against the socio-political backdrop of the Fifties, but it subtly holds up a mirror to the present-day Indian film industry, where so many films seem to defer to conservative, Right-wing ideology for fear of consequences like trolling and censorship. The defiant Shrikant makes for a seductive image, much like most of the visuals in Prime Video’s most expensive Indian production to date. Yet, even in this fictional, idealised version of the Hindi film industry, the only role for women appears to be to look pretty while being tragic victims.

Niloufer’s Journey from Tawaif to Actor 

Although it draws extensively upon the history of Hindi cinema and frequently includes a date stamp to alert the audience to the era in which it’s set, Jubilee isn’t really about historical accuracy. It’s fiction, which means the show is not obliged to relay to its audiences how much of early Hindi cinema was built on the capital and industry of women who were adventurous and bold enough to try their hand at this new and unpredictable business. The reality is that in the years just before the time in which Jubilee is set, tawaifs — who were independent-minded, single women who followed a matrilineal system that ran counter to established patriarchal norms, and who were marginalised by Victorian notions of morality — were key players in the early Hindi film industry. They were directors, like Fatma Begum, and producers like Jaddanbai (better known now as actor Nargis’s mother. She set up her own production house called Sangeet Movietone). As the film industry grew in stature and clamoured for respectability, these women and their contributions were pushed out of sight and on screen, the courtesan became the stock character of morality tales.

Jubilee doesn’t acknowledge this past and instead follows a different trajectory, one that many less-fortunate tawaifs were forced to follow. Niloufer, an esteemed courtesan of Lucknow, comes to Bombay after Partition and quickly finds herself in the position of a destitute. She narrowly escapes being sold to a seedy brothel and with the last of her savings, she dresses up to go to a posh club in order to snare a sugar daddy. To Jubilee’s credit, there’s no moral judgement on Niloufer, who is played by Wamiqa Gabbi. The series does repeatedly conflate the courtesan with a high-end sex worker, but without looking down on her profession. That Lucknow’s aristocrats are bidding enormous amounts of money to spend a night with Niloufer is simply stated as a fact, without any disrespect. Similarly, when she lands Walia seth (Ram Kapoor) as her patron in Bombay, it’s presented as transactional. “Khushi unki zarurat hai, jo unhe mujhse mil jaati hai. Meri zarurat hai… paisa (He’s looking for happiness, which he gets from me. I’m just looking for money),” she says when asked why she’s with Walia. 

Wamiqa Gabbi as Niloufer in Jubilee
Wamiqa Gabbi as Niloufer in Jubilee

While Jubilee does give Niloufer dignity, it also shows her as a woman who effectively survives and thrives in the film industry because of the men she’s able to seduce. At first, she seems to get roles because she is Walia’s mistress. She also lives in an apartment that Walia has given her and even after she’s got her foot in through the industry’s door, Niloufer seems to have no inclination to change the terms of their relationship. Just one scene in which Niloufer tells Walia that she’s moving into her own apartment and that he’s welcome to come see her there (rather than in the flat he pays for) would have been enough to establish her as independent-minded. Instead, Jubilee brushes past her and Walia’s relationship and shows Niloufer getting her big break because the film’s director Jay Khanna (Sidhant Gupta) has a crush on her. Later, she actively chooses to go to Mussoorie with hopes of seducing Madan Kumar (Aparshakti Khurana), which she does successfully and consequently lands another leading role.

It’s not as though Niloufer isn’t talented. The show makes it clear that she’s a gifted actor and dialogue writer, but most of her screen time in Jubilee is spent focused upon serially snaring men, rather than honing her artistic talents. This becomes particularly obvious as her story runs parallel to Jay’s, who is equally desperate to make a living but manages to nurse his ambitions of making a film all the same. Through songs, silences and conversations, Jubilee ensures we never forget Jay is an artist, even if he is cleaning tables at the Roy Talkies canteen. By the same measure, Jubilee keeps reiterating Niloufer’s seductive charm, rather than her professional aspirations or talent.

Sumitra is More Heartbreak and Less Heroine 

It doesn’t help that the only other woman with a significant role in Jubilee is an actor who seems to work for her husband’s studio and whose professional success is repeatedly undermined by the show’s writing. When we’re introduced to Sumitra Kumari (Aditi Rao Hydari) in the first episode, we’re told she is, in addition to being a star actor, the business head of Roy Talkies.

Yet there’s not one scene in the entire series that shows Sumitra performing that role.

The only scene in which Sumitra has a conversation about contracts is a setup for her to meet Jamshed Khan, whom she falls in love with, mirroring the real-life incidents of Jeevan Naiya (1936). The film’s star Devika Rani eloped with the hero, newcomer Najmul Hasan, deserting the film midway. Ultimately, Devika Rani was persuaded to return to Bombay and she went on to deliver a string of hits. (About Hasan, Sadat Hasan Manto wrote, “Poor Najmul Hasan joined the list of lovers separated from their beloveds by political, religious and capitalist intrigues. He was cut off—with a pair of scissors as it were—from the film and dumped into the wastebasket.”) Although Devika Rani’s marital relationship with her husband, director and producer Himanshu Rai, broke down, the two continued to work together. Devika chose to retire from the film industry in 1943 and started a different life with her second husband, artist Svetoslav Roerich.

Sumitra may be modelled on Devika Rani, but she has none of that dynamism. Unlike the real-life actor who was famed for starting conversations about female desires and dreams with her roles, the scenes featuring Sumitra as an actor are more about her co-star than her. Devika’s eye for talent and head for business were legendary — she famously discovered Dilip Kumar — but all Sumitra gets to be in Jubilee is a tragedy queen. One of the few moments that showcase Sumitra’s understanding of commercial cinema is when she, through a cup of tea, teaches Jay the importance of escapist entertainment. Especially considering the real-life inspiration, Sumitra deserved to have a lot more scenes like this. Instead, practically every scene featuring Sumitra is either about Jamshed or about her wanting to avenge his tragic death, as though there is nothing else of importance in her life and character. Haunted by Jamshed’s disappearance during the riots of 1947, Sumitra flits through Jubilee, looking beautiful and sashaying out of rooms, fuelled by nothing other than heartbreak.

Aditi Rao Hydari as Sumitra in Jubilee
Aditi Rao Hydari as Sumitra in Jubilee

If Shrikant is powered by his love for cinema and a conviction that it can bring out the best in both its practitioners and audiences, Sumitra’s motivation is her love for Jamshed, which feels singularly less substantial and grand in comparison. Shrikant’s love gives him shades of heroic grandeur, like when he stands up to the Russians. In sharp contrast, Sumitra, desperate to find out what happened to Jamshed, capitulates easily. “I’m willing to be your mouthpiece,” she says to Jotwani and the Russians — only for Jotwani to politely reject her and say, “Masses follow male heroes.” Irrespective of whether there’s truth in his statement, it would have been nice to see Sumitra deliver a cutting, arch comeback that reminds Jotwani he came to her for help, and not the other way round.

Perhaps the most frustrating snub comes from Jubilee’s decision to kill Sumitra off at the end of the show, as though she has no purpose once both the men in her life are dead. However, by that time Jubilee has bigger problems than the sketchy characterisation of its female characters. In the latter half of the show, the series loses  its way with wire-tapping appearing as the one-stop solution to all plot points, and the melodrama of the final episodes makes them feel like a completely different show from the one with the layered, thoughtful storytelling of the initial episodes. 

Male Egos and Female Tears

One of the few charming sub-plots in Jubilee’s later episodes is the unexpected friendship between Jay and Raghu, the thug turned cinema owner. They begin as antagonists — Punjabis and Sindhis who are pitted against one another in the refugee camp in Bombay. Despite having nothing in common and throwing punches at one another on more than one occasion, there’s a strange kinship between Raghu and Jay. Jay’s dogged determination to shed the tag of being a “campy” and become a filmmaker is part of what gives Raghu the confidence to be more than hired muscle. Raghu is one of the first to see Jay’s success — when they’re about to shut down a cinema for playing a pirated copy of Jay’s film, it’s Raghu who notices the audience’s applause and urges Jay to savour the public response, rather than seek commercial gain. Later, when Jay is tying himself up in knots about getting into a relationship with Niloufer despite being engaged to another woman, he ends up confiding in Raghu. They’re sitting in Raghu’s Paramount Cinema and even though the conversation is intended to make us feel for Jay, it also shows us Raghu’s determination to not be defined by his constraints. Bathed in amber tones that reflect the fire in his voice, Raghu tells Jay how Jay’s Khanna Studios inspired Raghu to see himself as more than a minion. “Tu maalik hai, aur tu maalik bana rahe. Darna mat (You are a boss, so stay a boss. Don’t be afraid),” he tells Jay. 

Aditi Rao Hydari as Sumitra in Jubilee
Aditi Rao Hydari as Sumitra in Jubilee

There’s not one scene like this for the women in Jubilee, where the characters get to show themselves to be more than what the male hero needs them to be at that moment. Instead, we get a portrait of an industry full of men with swagger, who see themselves as artists and dreamers. The women always stand behind them, at a distance, beautiful and tearful. They may be other things — actors, friends, daughters, entrepreneurs — on paper, but for Jubilee’s purposes, they are, first and foremost, lovers of flawed men. That is the only character trait of a heroine in this world.

Jubilee had the freedom to reimagine the early years of Hindi cinema and there’s a lot that the show’s writing gets right with its storytelling despite the lack of historicity. Its standout aspects are the characterisation of men like Shrikant and Jay, and the shape-shifting nature of male friendships. The women, in contrast, feel like they’ve been imagined in broad strokes. To begin with, there are less than a handful of women characters in this male-dominated show, which wouldn’t be worth pointing out if they were as well-written as even the supporting cast of male characters. Of the minor roles, Niloufer’s friend is so inconsequential that she makes less of an impact than the fleeting exchange Jay has with a streetside cobbler. Madan Kumar’s wife is characterised first by a bland cheerfulness and then tears. The net result is unmemorable. Sumitra and Niloufer get the billing of leading ladies and their roles offer hints of complexities in the early episodes, but ultimately both are limited to being informed by their love for men who will desert them in different ways.

Jubilee, enchanted by Sumitra and Niloufer's luminous beauty, isn’t interested in seeing any other aspect of them. Two lady-shaped cutouts with broken hearts is all the show needs its female protagonists to be.  

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