Jubilee Web Series Review: Vikramaditya Motwane's Ode to Old Bollywood Loses Its Way in Pursuit of Heavy Entertainment

The series is streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Jubilee Webseries Review
Jubilee Webseries Review

Creators: Vikramaditya Motwane, Soumik Sen
Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Writer: Atul Sabharwal
Cast: Aparshakti Khurana, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Sidhant Gupta, Wamiqa Gabbi, Aditi Rao Hydari, Ram Kapoor, Shweta Basu Prasad

Most modern directors are cinephiles and film historians disguised as storytellers. They’re superfans of both movies and movie industries; students of the method, the madness as well as the myths that bridge the two; scholars of the intersection between facts and fictions. So when they get a chance to tell a story about storytelling itself, you know it’s personal. You sense the film-on-films format is sort of autobiographical, a childhood escape that finds a home. You see the cinema of a time and a time of cinema at once. The frames become a little more symbolic, the shots a little more indulgent, the tone a little more vintage, and the homages a little more playful and provocative. You detect a chaotic kid-in-candy-store energy in everyone from Francois Truffaut to Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg, Farah Khan to Anurag Kashyap. It’s Vikramaditya Motwane’s turn with Jubilee, a sprawling alt-reality drama about the nascent years of the Hindi film industry. 

Set against the birth of independent India in the 1940s and 1950s, the 10-episode series marries archival vignettes with composite legends through a narrative cocktail of art, ambition, love, politics, murder and everything (except sex. Go figure) in between. You sense the excitement of Motwane – along with co-creator Soumik Sen and writer Atul Sabharwal – in the many based-on-true-rumours characters. It’s a gold rush for trivia geeks: From Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani to Ashok Kumar and Raj Kapoor, this is spot-the-reference filmmaking at its peak. There’s a Bombay-based studio called Roy Talkies, which becomes a pioneer in playback singing and CinemaScope technology. There’s the studio boss (Prosenjit Chatterjee, as Srikant Roy), a ruthless visionary who puts cinema before family and humanity. There’s his business partner and movie-star wife (Aditi Rao Hydari, as Sumitra Kumari), a woman who falls for the studio’s new lead hero. There’s the loyal lab assistant and  future superstar (Aparshakti Khurana, as Binod Das) who is  haunted by the ghost of the man whose identity he hijacks. There’s his home-maker wife (Shweta Basu Prasad, as Ratna Das), a woman who misses Binod Das and tolerates the star that he becomes. There’s the idealistic young storyteller (Sidhant Gupta, as Jay Khanna), who goes from post-Partition tragedy to Bombay success story. There’s the scrappy courtesan (Wamiqa Habbi, as Niloufer Qureshi), who loves and charms her way to the top of the newcomer-actress chain. There’s the shady financier (Ram Kapoor, as Shamsher Walia), the Cold War-induced designs on propaganda moviemaking, chain-smoking government stooges that put Mad Men to shame, a blink-and-miss Gangubai Kathiawadi cameo and the Bombay-Velvet-meets-Lootera setting.

You sense the buzz of Motwane – a versatile creator whose career has been a testament to the triumph of there being no such thing as a “Vikramaditya Motwane” movie – in the way his craft treads the thin line between showing and showing off. The pilot episode of Jubilee features a moment in which cinematographer Pratik Shah frames two characters, in parallel phone booths, as if they were images on a spliced film reel. The Roy Talkies gate, shaped like an audio cassette, looks like an ode to the future. The transition from silent films to talkies is rooted in the show’s use of ambient sounds, background music and wordless drama. For instance, an early scene has Srikant Roy confronting Sumitra Kumari on a train. She is planning to leave India, but he intercepts her. Instead of sharp dialogue or action, the scene takes refuge in the unsaid: They stare at one another, punctuated by the sound of the steam engine and the station in the middle of the night. 

A still from Jubilee
A still from Jubilee

At another point, when an actor struggles to nail a shot in his first film, his final take is neither heard nor seen, with the scene instead cutting to the reactions of the other characters on set. The whir of ceiling fans and cameras, the clicks of a projector, even the sucking of a cigarette conveys the story of an era that’s just about waking up to the magic of a soundscape. Amit Trivedi’s music becomes a worthy extension of this treatment, cementing his recent status (Qala) as a composer who recreates better than he creates. 

Not to mention the nifty allegories: Jay Khanna’s slave-to-storyteller arc mirrors the journey of a newly independent nation-state, one that’s torn between critical acclaim and commercial value. The little nuggets of history – like the banning of Hindi film songs on All India Radio, or the emergence of Soviet socialism as a desi theme – drive the plot without seeming too forced or educational. Directors of this genre tend to flaunt their passion and knowledge, burying the audience in a landslide of self-congratulatory hat tips. But Motwane finds a decent balance. 

A lot of Jubilee is too busy to get cute about its cultural revisionism. The meta casting helps: The Binod Das story is informed by the real-world hunger of Aparshakti Khurana, an actor who is regularly reduced to the role of ‘faithful/funny aide’ by mainstream cinema. The moral darkness of Binod is a good jolt, mostly because one imagines Khurana is more suited to play Jay Khanna, a character that’s a bit over-performed by Sidhant Gupta. You can tell that Gupta is imitating and deriving more than being, which makes Jay look like he’s acting both on and off the screen. Yet, the ensemble does well to straddle the reel-real divide, allowing the series to exist on both sides of the camera. They resist the cosplay syndrome, behaving like people who don’t quite know about the colour that might displace their black-and-white palettes in the near future. 

Aparshakti Khurana in Jubilee
Aparshakti Khurana in Jubilee

Having said that, Jubilee is undercut by its own tempered voice. For a show as handsome as this one, it’s strange that the thing it lacks is a sense of swag and joy. (It’s something that Baz Luhrmann gets — his devotion to period palettes and world-building is so contagious that it conceals his mediocrity as a storyteller). The fear of getting too showy and dense (once known as the Anurag Kashyap Problem) is apparent in Jubilee, which is why the premise eventually loses shape in its pursuit of heavy entertainment. It’s almost like the makers are so conscious of getting carried away, they end up choosing the longest and least interesting narrative paths. If anything, the characters feel conventional, as if they were designed to echo the tropes of those times. None of them are as complex or audacious enough as parallel figures, with most getting screen-time according to their fluctuating fortunes. The result is a wide-ranging but strangely sober series that’s constantly trying to match its style with substance and volume.

With all the mini-films colliding for space, it’s difficult to keep track of the desires and situations of each character. For example, Niloufer initially becomes a mistress of Walia, even living in one of his flats, but the screenplay seems to forget about this detail once she embarks on her own starlet journey with both the leading men. There is no evidence of their equation despite Walia financing her first film. Similarly, Sumitra Kumari’s search for her ex-lover is stretched and convoluted. There are times when she’s one tabloid or gossip session away from uncovering the truth. It often feels like there are two of her – one for Roy Talkies and the other for Jubilee. By now, the typecasting of Aditi Rao Hydari as the beautiful damsel in perpetual distress affects the mystery of the women she plays. A pre-partition riot in Lucknow casts a shadow over one of the primary characters, but the finale resolves this thread in a courtroom with lazy and non-credible arguments. The makers would have us believe that there’s a lot at stake, but it’s hard to remember the little social nuances of each relationship. The running joke of uttering Madan Kumar’s name with a popular expletive sounds like a new-age gag, and Binod Das’s transition into a vibrant superstar seems to be missing a few layers of evolution. A group of men – including an omnipresent Russian diplomat – spend the entire series phone-tapping Madan Kumar in a nearby room; by the time they take action, the viewer forgets why they started spying on him to begin with. 

Then there’s the problem that typifies this genre. So much is going on between the foreground and background that it feels like ‘Bollywood’ doesn’t exist outside of what we see in Jubilee – it’s like Roy Talkies and the rival camps of Binod and Jay are all that the industry is made of. When real-life names like Dilip Kumar and K. Asif are mentioned in passing to puncture this bubble, it just doesn’t add up. Its universe feels too alternative and not alternative enough at once, if that makes sense. And the way it ends is melancholic without really earning the gravity of a period epic. All of which is to say that Jubilee learns from the mistakes of a misfire like Bombay Velvet (2015) only to make its own long-form mistakes. The inspiration comes from a pure space, but the reverence feels more calculated and less personal with every episode. It’s a shame, because I can’t think of a better fit than Vikramaditya Motwane to excavate the (history of) craft with an eye on the (history-making of) art. Jubilee is more body than soul, the symptom of a show stuck in the chasm between cinephilia and cinema. It’s the equivalent of a studio that moonlights as a museum: The method and myths are preserved, but the madness is not. 

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