There are few things I love more than movies about the movies. It’s two of my favourite things coming together - films and the wild wild west of show business - where egos, insecurity, ambition and arrogance go hand in hand with genius and mastery, talent and treachery, dreams and delusions. Where art and artists clash with commerce and cartoons. Where careers and fortunes are made, remade and decimated Friday after Friday.
Enter Amazon Prime Video’s latest series Jubilee. Created by Vikramaditya Motwane and Soumik Sen - Jubilee is a fictional account of the early days of the Hindi film industry - right from a newly independent India in 1947 to the early 50s. Our story is centered on Roy Talkies - one of Hindi cinema’s few movie studios at the time. Roy Talkies is run by hard-nosed actor and producer Srikant Roy played by a stone-faced Prosenjit Chatterjee along with his estranged wife - top Bollywood star and national heartthrob Sumitra Kumari played by Aditi Rao Hydari.
But the focus of Jubilee is the contrasting and intersecting journeys of two rising stars. On the one hand, there’s Binod Das, played by Aparshakti Khuranna in his most significant role yet. Binod is Srikant Roy’s loyal right hand man who himself dreams of becoming an actor. On the other hand, there’s the Raj Kapoor-esque Jay Khanna played by Sidhant Gupta. After their lives in Karachi are washed away overnight as a result of the partition, theater veteran Jay and his family are forced to move to the big city of Bombay and stay at a refugee camp, while Jay pursues his dream of directing movies. Propelled by an electrifying, show-making breakout performance from Sidhant Gupta, it’s Jay’s story that’s the most invigorating branch of the show. There’s also Jay’s unlikely friend Niloufer played by the charming Wamika Gabbi, who herself dreams of being on the big screen .
Jubilee opens with Roy Talkies undertaking a country wide talent hunt in search of a new face for their next big role - Madan Kumar. But Madan Kumar isn’t the name of a character they’re trying to cast in a specific movie. No no, it’s the name they invented for the next big movie star. They made up a movie star, now they just need to find an actor who can play the role - for life. UFF You gotta love the meta-nesss.
Reportedly amazon prime video’s most expensive Indian show yet Jubilee is a sprawling series, with tremendous effort and rich detailing put into transporting us back in time and recreating the Bombay of the 50s. The show is essentially production design porn - as Aparna Sud and Mukund Gupta give us towering sets and studio lots, immaculate train carriages, art deco single screen theatres and beyond.
Scale aside, what’s always fascinating about stories based on the world of moviemaking is how every filmmaker has their own perspective and view of How they want Us to feel about the industry. Over the years, films like Om Shanti Om, Rangeela, Luck By Chance, Heroine and multiple recent streaming shows - have portrayed the Hindi film industry as sleazy, seedy, and cynical. We’ve seen it approached with warmth and affection, satire and ridicule. We’ve seen it celebrated and sensationalised, clobbered and condemned. But director Vikramadita Motwane and writer atul sabharwal’s view of this world is bleak, joyless and sparse.
Jubilee is predominantly about the pain, hardship, cost and constant, cutthroat battle of trying to make it in this world, but more so the curse of success that comes with having made it. All of these characters - these stars, filmmakers and studio heads are…miserable. If Jubilee is to be believed, stardom Suckssss.
For Binod, it’s about how stardom is intoxicating and seductive, yes, but also suffocating. Personhood must be sacrificed for persona. It reminded me of Shah Rukh Khan’s famous quote where he said “I'm just an employee of the myth of Shah Rukh Khan”.For Jay Khanna it's the struggle of the outsider who's forever sidelined and kicked to the curb, consistently denied a foot in the door, who’s then forced to risk it all and bet on himself.
I also loved the little pearls of wisdom the show keeps throwing at us about the perils of fame and how stardom often trounces storytelling rather than enabling it. My favourite example comes in part 2 of the show which drops next week in which a sincere, hard working filmmaker is forced to reshoot and butcher his completed film because his lead star is having an affair and his image needs to be reworked and salvaged.
Jubilee’s approach to the film industry is patient, contemplative and severely self serious. Much of this show features intense shots of characters staring into the distance - pondering, plotting, in pain and usually smoking. Lots of intense smoking and staring basically.
But, as a result, I never thought the world of the movies would feel so - …dry, colourless, muted and subdued. I understand that the makers don't want to present yet another sexy, sensational film industry story. But this show’s desperate need to be profound seems to make it averse to any sort of sizzle or spark..As if it’s afraid to make showbusiness seem even minorly entertaining, particularly in part 1 of the series which drops this week. The material is all there on paper - backstabbing, affairs, power trips and sabotage - but the brooding, moody treatment blunts the proceedings somehow and makes it harder to feel for these characters.
It’s why Jubilee is not always the most accessible show. There’s a dense air of sophistication and seriousness that borders on intimidating. The kind that convinces You that, if the show isn’t Entirely coming together for you, its because You're probably just too shallow and dumb to fully appreciate it. Well mission accomplished. Thankfully in Part 2 of the series, particularly in the 7th and 8th episodes - things spring to life and we get more scandals and saucy drama to hold onto.
But as for These fictional stars, as Binod AKA Madan Kumar, Aparshakti Khuranna is wholeheartedly sincere,and I love the metaness of casting an actor who is himself on the fringes of being a leading man to play a character finally getting the chance to be one. But there’s a flatness to Aparshakti’s performance that doesn't let us feel all the various complex shades and dimensions of Binod. He’s a fascinating figure on paper - the overlooked movie studio employee who’s always existed on the fringe of the glitz and glamour world that he aspires to. Until a simmering cocktail of rage, resentment and jealousy within him is unleashed to help him achieve his dream, only to then realise that he’s now just a lapdog of a different kind - beholden to his superstar image.
But it’s in Aditi Rao Hydari’s Sumirar Kumari that I felt the most let down. There’s so much promise here of a female studio head and movie star yet, for the most part, Sumitra is reduced to a plot device who exists merely to increase the stakes and tension with a tiring revenge arc. The Sumitra- Srikant scenes, in particular, are the most frustrating. We’re repeatedly told that she’s instrumental to Roy Talkies as the studio’s business head but I have no idea why or what she brings or does because we never get to see it. I think sumitra could've been the beating heart and soul of this show had she been given more dignity rather than be stuck in a repetitive loop of scheming and sadness.
Conversely, I can’t remember the last time I was so taken by a breakout performance as I was with Sidhant Gupta as Jay Khanna. Particularly in part 1 of the series, before Jay gets all successful and sullen, Sidhant oozes charisma and charm and demands the narrative light up every time he’s on screen. I’ll take a front row seat to everything siddhant does next.
By the particularly heavy, final two episodes of Jubilee I felt defeated and beaten into submission as we get lost down a blurry spiral of the show’s lofty ambitions and busy plot - involving phone tapping, government propaganda, russians and americans, murder trials, ultimatums, heartbreak and general tragedy porn, most of which made me feel…indifferent.
I just wish I felt the soaring highs and crushing lows of these characters more.
I don't know what Jubilee achieves in the grander scheme of things - but, true to its world of showbusiness and true to the spirit of yet another Friday - it does admittedly Make a career - of an incredibly exciting new talent on the block in Siddhant Gupta. And maybe that should be enough for us. A star is born.