Vikramaditya Motwane’s Jubilee ft. Sidhant Gupta: Of cinema, by cinema and for cinema

Apr 19, 2023 12:15 AM IST

The exquisitely shot and produced 10-part series, starring Aditi Rao Hydari, Aparshakti Khurana and Prasenjit Chatterjee, does justice to the scale and time the makers have invested into it.

My first impression of Jubilee — Vikramaditya Motwane’s magnum opus for streaming — was its striking production. From the visuals and the sound to the evocative colour grading, the sets and the stunning costume design, there was not one false note. I can safely conclude now that while It is stunning to look at throughout, but it can also be quite breathtaking at certain points.

Actor Sidhant Gupta in a still from web show Jubilee
Actor Sidhant Gupta in a still from web show Jubilee

Take, for instance, Sidhant Gupta and Wamiqa Gabbi cavorting in a street on a rainy night and seeking shelter under an umbrella — quite unabashedly a tribute to one of the most iconic songs in Hindi cinema: Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua (Shree 420, 1955), featuring Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Or, when Gupta drives Gabbi to a shoot as her chauffeur — an exquisitely shot sequence where her face is set in the centre of the passing art-deco buildings reflected in the windscreen. Take, for instance, the many scenes in the Roy Talkies fireplace chamber where Aparshakti Khurana and Prasenjit Chatterjee’s characters have the bulk of their private exchanges, which remind the discerning viewer of a Shakespearean kopabhavan of sorts.

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The other thing that struck me about it was Khurana and how inspired his casting as the show’s leading man is. Playing a gopher-projectionist at an iconic film studio — a closet performer, who obviously harbours intense acting ambition, this less illustrious Khurana aces his leading man role for the most part, slipping in and out of characters and selves within the world of the show with a determined ease. The casting team successfully insinuates Khurana’s in-the-shadows off-screen status into the world of Jubilee, creating a screen persona for him that, in an ideal world, would knock down the walls of the show and catapult him into the popular imagination.

Motwane’s leading-men punts are well-known — he brought out the brooding and intense side to Ranveer Singh in Lootera (2013), turned Saif Ali Khan into a tormented Sikh policeman in Sacred Games and picked a raw Harshvardhan Kapoor to play a vigilante with unforced naïveté in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018). In Jubilee, he deftly bets on Khurana to play an Othello-like character with the perfectly paced descent into madness. I’ve always considered the former RJ a dedicated and studious performer, and in a cast packed with terrific performers of the likes of Chatterjee and Aditi Rao Hydari, he doesn’t disappoint.

Once the thrall of the spectacle has subsided, the raison d’etre comes into its own. Jubilee, as the second set of episodes proves, is a laboratory where substances obey the laws of science like you would expect them to. Only, this time, all the elements, compounds, solutions and what have you — are new. Motwane and writer Soumik Sen have a new set of players and a new sonata to orchestrate. It’s the old rules, tropes and memory that bring them to life.

At the halfway mark, the dream behind the show seems to raise a toast cinema’s galvanising power for the popular culture of a newly independent nation. There’s the pain of Partition, the communal strife spilling over from it, the murky geopolitical allegiances and finally the Cold War insidiously making its presence felt within the corridors of the film business. There are studios, financiers, producers, theatre owners. There’s censorship and piracy. There are camps and scandals. And yet, it doesn’t feel like a history lesson.

That is because, as Motwane has earlier said of the show, of the investment into characters and their compelling individual tracks. The plot hinges between two halves. The first is the noirish universe of Roy Talkies and its characters, defined by and intensely shot to convey a Machiavellian order of things. Srikant Roy (Chatterjee) and Sumitra Kumari (Hydari) are based, it’s widely alleged, on Hindi film colossuses Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani.

The other is the seemingly lighthearted, youthful world of penniless migrant and aspiring filmmaker Jay Khanna (Gupta) and his love interest, former courtesan and aspiring starlet Niloufer (Gabbi). Khanna and Niloufer are delightful composites of the adorable tramp and enterprising auteur (with the makings of an unhinged genius) and the winsome but lonely film actress, respectively. The attention to detail is striking: Khanna’s tics and mannerisms increasingly betray actor-filmmaker Raj Kapoor’s screen persona; Chatterjee’s suave and unscrupulous self-absorption are, as confirmed by the makers, a nod to Marcello Mastroianni’s character in (1963).

One sets out with their opinion of Hydari, Chatterjee and Khurana’s characters already way too high. But the real surprises to come out of Jubilee, in terms of performances, are Gupta and Gabbi, who’ve embraced their characters with a brilliance and passion that only the folly of youth can permit, and serendipitously, this seems to happen to them both on a personal level and in terms of their work. Nandish Singh Sandhu — beautiful, cavalier, and gothic — impresses in his spectral presence throughout the course of the series. Ram Kapoor is entertaining and a maverick performer but can get hammy at times (his bald hairpiece and abrupt shift of character from petty and crass to generous and loving, don’t help either).

And then, to successfully put together a 10-part saga about the golden age of Indian cinema, you have to get the music right. Alokananda Dasgupta (background score) and Amit Trivedi (songs) do it so often that one is at a loss as to where to begin. Right from the wistful Voh Tere Mere Ishq Ka that looms hauntingly in the backdrop during the second half to the many peppy and romantic melodies (rendered superbly by Mohammed Irfan in a Mukesh voice), it’s an eminently hummable album. Kausar Munir’s lyrics ensure soul and an old-timer verisimilitude for the songs, many of which are actually set within the context of individual, fictional films. Trivedi’s cameo, however, as a performer during a success party, could have been avoided, I felt.

That this period piece is for cinema, of cinema and by cinema is evident during the climactic disembowelment of the world of Roy Talkies. Chatterjee’s monologue about cinema (“...Cinema can raise the level of the public, by giving them a taste of poetry, of photography, of music...of aspiration”) echoes in our midst from far deeper than his being allows. This is a guarantee for those of us who are madly in love with the movies — that Jubilee gets us. And we get it back.

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