Considering how exquisite everyone looks in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Jubilee, you’d be forgiven for thinking that making sure his frames flatter whoever is on screen was among cinematographer Pratik Shah’s priorities while shooting the web series. From riots to refugee camps, thugs to starlets, everything and everyone looks photogenic. However, according to Shah, this is just a happy side effect of creating a vintage world that feels truly immersive. “I literally never strive for beauty,” Shah told Film Companion while talking about Jubilee, which is the cinematographer’s first major, big-budget project. “It’s about controlling the practicals and shaping the practicals, but not adding lights for the actors.”
Brought to life by an ensemble cast that includes Prosenjit Chatterjee, Aditi Rao Hydari, Aparshakti Khurana, Wamiqa Gabbi and Sidhant Gupta, Jubilee is the story of rivalries and romances that unfold in the Hindi film industry in a newly-independent India. “We had four main large exterior sets — we had our refugee camp; then we had our Bombay streets, Lucknow streets, and Roy Talkies. The Bombay streets, Lucknow streets and Roy Talkies were all built on the same ground. So we built a set, shot it, demolished it, built back up a new one,” said Shah. The show was also filmed in a number of real locations, including iconic old cinemas like Maratha Mandir and Edward Theatre in Mumbai. “There’s just so much texture to draw from in live locations. There’s ambience to draw from, to just be inspired from. I think that’s just my process on sets as well. When we’re designing a set, I’m thinking what’s the inspiration for the ambient light here? What am I drawing from?” said Shah. “There’s just so much in every corner to draw from and that is just part of the process. You have to see what’s around you.”
While the show’s pacing is inconsistent and the writing often feels contrived despite the obvious research, the cinematography in Jubilee is consistently dazzling. “It took maybe five or 10 days — it was a 92-day shoot — to really understand how Vikram sees lensing,” recalled Shah. “He’s visually a really astute director. He’s a photographer himself. … There’d be times when I’d put on a 50mm (lens) after we’ve talked and blocked a scene, and he’ll go, ‘I think we should go 65, I think we need a little more compression’.”
From Jubilee’s elaborate production design, it’s evident that Motwane had a very distinct vision for his imaginary Bombay, but it was upon Shah’s urging that the web series got its warm-toned palette. Jubilee’s shooting was delayed by Covid and while waiting to start filming, Shah watched Beanpole (2019), a heartbreakingly beautiful film set in post-World War II Russia. Inspired by its palette, Shah made a pitch to Motwane: What if they opted for golden hues instead of the usual, muted palette? Shah’s justification was rooted in realism. “We know our theatres are going to have red and green. And tungsten is present as a source of light in that era. So we kind of removed blue from the entire palette.” The decision proved to be an inspired one. Jubilee’s look is not just beautiful, it also feels organic in the way it brings a more modern sensibility to classic nostalgia. Shah says the show’s final appearance is “very little post and a lot of prep” and that colourist Sidharth Meer added the final touches. “In prep, we talked about the grain structure that we wanted to add, a bit of diffusion that we wanted to add on top. So instead of doing it on camera, the plan was to add a little bit in post,” said Shah.
Along with departments like production design and costumes, Jubilee’s cinematography gives it a grandeur and visual depth that is rarely seen in web series. “I think it’s depressing to reimagine things for a phone. At the end of the day, it has to be a world that you dive into, regardless of the size of the screen you’re watching it on,” Shah said. When asked to pick five of his favourite scenes from Jubilee, here’s what the cinematographer chose.
Episode Five: The relationship between Binod Das and Srikant Roy
“We did a little bit of coverage between both characters and then as soon as Roy gets up, it’s a 90-second shot that’s held throughout. What happens is he gets up, he goes around the table and we slowly pan around to a two-shot and then we come to Binod’s face. As we’re moving towards Binod’s face, we’ve given Prosenjit in and out marks of where he’s going to be in and out of frame, so he just kind of hovers. He becomes like this looming, mysterious figure that has a hold on Madan. And we never shot coverage of Roy, we never shot another angle on that scene because the tension that is there, the metaphor that’s there, with Roy kind of hovering behind him out of focus, that was the crux of the scene. It’s just so magical working with a director like Vikram … He knows exactly what the pacing has to be, where the emotion has to be, and is decisive about it.”
Episode Seven: An Homage to Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984)
“So ‘Taxi Driver’ (Jay Khanna’s film) is playing along with ‘Gambler’ (Madan Kumar’s film) and Jay walks into the theatre. He stands in front of the two posters. Behind that, in the live location, there was a room and we were able to fit just one light, a tungsten source, on to a mark that we gave him. Sidhant is hilarious on set. He’s very fidgety in real life. He was constantly moving left and right and swaying in place. I had to be like, ‘Sidhant, this one time, just don’t move. Just stand here and don’t move because the light is only going to hit you right here.’ Paris, Texas has been one of my favourite films of all time since film school and finding a moment to give an homage to that was really special. It was just a happy accident too in blocking, because in the Taxi Driver poster, there happens to be a black cut out. His (Gupta’s) face kinda fit in perfectly there. That was just a beautiful moment where you see the whole story in one frame.”
“I think reflections and shadows are just a part of me, that I just bring to every project I’m on. With a project like this, there’s just so much room for silence and introspection. A character facing themselves, or you seeing the truth of a character or what the character is hiding — to me, those are the most beautiful ways, or the most powerful ways, or revealing ways, to show things.”
Episode Seven: Madan Kumar Rebels Against Srikant Roy
“This one was fascinating because we had planned to start with the shot of Roy throwing the magazine at Madan and we were going to do a fast push-in towards Roy. That was the first shot. We’re on Roy and as we’re holding on him, he starts to move. … As he’s walking out, I’m on my headset, whispering to the dolly grip, ‘Back up, back up, back up.’ So we start backing up and he starts walking around and I’m panning with him. That’s just one of those happy accidents. Vikram didn’t know, I didn’t know, the dolly grip didn’t know what would happen. The actors didn’t know we were going to continue the scene. I think we ended up using take two, but that first take was just magical. … You’ve seen this office space so many times,, but we’ve never been in the centre of the room. Because of the heightened drama of the scene, we thought to increase the tension a little more, increase the stakes a little more by putting them in the centre. It just shows, I think, a bit of the power dynamic becoming equal and how Binod is not bending down to Roy anymore.”
Episode Eight: A Star is Born, and His Name is Jay Khanna
“It’s probably my favourite scene in the whole show. Walia (Ram Kapoor), Jay and Raghu (Alok Arora) go to the theatre to shut it down. They storm in and go up to the projection room, but Raghu stops Jay from stopping the projector because he hears the applause. This was a very tiny projection room that we shot in. I think that shot with him looking through is kind of the beginning of the curiosity. It hasn’t hit him yet. He goes into the theatre and he stands at the balcony and we do this jib shot where you come below him. It starts there and then it goes down, and the lights turn on at the interval. Using tungsten sources means you see the harsh light because of the era and so the whole room is filled with a golden hue. … That scene was just very special because I felt like there wasn’t a lot of design in it. It felt very raw even in how we shot it. … That whole scene was just so pure in every aspect. We did this one long shot of Raghu, just staying there by the door, smiling. Without that shot, I don’t know how I feel about that scene because there’s something really magical about seeing him from a distance. You see his whole relationship with Jay come to this moment in that scene.”
Episode Seven: Slipping from Colour to Black and White
“Madan and Niloufer are rehearsing in Mussoorie — what was interesting there was that we had two stages of it. We did the first stage and it was a bit of a set up and we had a steady camera around them as they’re holding each other and then she says, “I’m going to take this poison,” and she backs away. They both are in their corners, one’s facing one direction and the other is facing the other direction. We’re in a room that’s only lit by practicals at night. So you have to block them in certain areas, but then it hits a note — from a tonality standpoint — of heightened drama. So what I did, for one of the few times in the whole show, was that we added a light for the moment that she turns. So she turns back and now it’s like we have a heightened sense of light. Now you feel like you’re in the scene. And then Aarti (Bajaj, the editor) and Vikram just magically decided to intersperse the black and white into the scene. Which was never the plan and in the first few cuts, I don’t think it was there. It was a later decision that they made and it was incredible. Because now you have a third layer of meta scene within a scene within a scene. The design and flow of that was really special.”
Jubilee is streaming on Prime Video.