Jubilee Talkies: Loving and Lying in the Forties

A letter to the dead character of Jamshed Khan and how the lighting, mounting, framing and style of ‘Jubilee’ make a bonfire of clichés to create an original 

Dear Mr Khan,

(Incidentally Jamshed but it’s the Khan in your name that matters sir)

When episode 3 of Vikramaditya Motwane’s recently released series, Jubilee, on Amazon Prime opens, we see your chiselled profile. It is love at third sight. For me, that is.

Your loyal hairdresser Maqsood miyan gently gels back your hair. “Should I gamble?” you ask him, staring at an ad for the to-be fabled Madan Kumar, a fantastical future hero that Roy Talkies is in the search for. “And if I do,” you add, “my identity, name, everything will be changed in Bombay.”

In the 1940s and early ’50s the era this series is set in, no ‘Khan’ became a hero. India was filtering the post-Partition “othering” and communal mistrust ruled mindsets. Knowing which Maqsood offers a “chhote moonh, badi baat” (humble man, tall claim) gem of a comment. “Where is the problem sir, you actors are used to changing and embracing new identities all the time.”


Khan saheb, you are lost to the audience (we are led to believe you die in the riots) long before this flashback fades into this enticingly half-lit, rose-hued ode to troubled identity conclusions called Jubilee. So I am writing this post-death letter to you. Don’t mind, because who knows, given the charming spell you cast, they may resurrect you next week in the second drop of the series. We know too well as devotees of the one and only of its kind Hindi cinema, the suave tricks film scripts play. But that’s speculation, for now.

Mixing Clichés with Original Bursts

The fact that this complex, behind-the-scenes retelling of an industry that sells hope, fame, dreams and success to millions, once resided in the bipolarity of post-Partition anxieties and rebuilding dreams fascinates me. It determinedly hunts out tension and human fragmentation, while branding a terrific story of How to Make a Hero. Such an arresting antithesis. Between Motwane and his co-writers Atul Sabharwal and Soumik Sen, it is the dialogues of Jubilee that warm us to life as a cold-hearted tragedy. The lovingly curating clichés from post-Independence Hindi cinema (that this free nation grew up on) and how they are mixed with audaciously original ideas. Let me point out just one instance. The beholden-to-rich men Niloufer (Wamiqa Gabbi) and refugee-with a-pang Jay Khanna (Sidhant Gupta) exchange a rain-swept moment on the streets of Bombay. They hold the ‘filmi’ umbrella a la Raj Kapoor and Nargis in the film Shree 420, which then flies away while they continue to soak in the rain. This is not a love scene, there is no foot-tapping song, neither is one exactly mesmerised by the other but the umbrella does fly away. See the cliché ditching itself in the formulaic rain? Wow.


A still from ‘Jubilee’.

Let me tell you what happens once you are snuffed out. This Chandigarh boy Aparshakti Khurana, unpredictably good as Binod Das who travels the enormous distance from being a studio hand to a star in irritatingly high-waist trousers wrangles with the audience (us watching Jubilee even as inside the series an audience is watching Madan Kumar) to like him. The three-dimensionality of perspective is terrific!

I didn’t like this Khurana guy at all first, oh god, not him, I muttered to Friday Bhagwan, the God of Hindi films who I invoke with every release. But then Khurana becomes Das and Das becomes Madan Kumar with his hair spiffed, his chaal-dhaal, wearing guilt and melodrama combining the stories and styles of Dilip Kumar (once Yusuf Khan, no?), Madan Puri, Dev Anand and who else. What a fabulous literary device to use. Create one fictional character merging a few career trajectories and real identities. Takes skill. Skill is what Motwane bhau has, as film historians will say.

Set Design, Lighting, Framing, Cinematography

Sad men compete with sadder women and take over. In letting tragedy consume them. Sumitra Kumari played by Aditi Rao Hydari is a bit of a disappointment (even as she plays the role of a disappointed wife and your lover) and while Wamiqa Gabbi as Niloufer sparkles, you men beat them in expressing love and loss.


A still from Jubilee.

In expressing love and loss, the men in Jubilee are ahead of the women.

Everyone lies about their predicaments and temptations. Everyone loves. Srikant Rao, our Prosenjit Chatterjee, is so cleverly convincing. He knows how to do a good role. With his slightly drooping lips, waistcoat sets, brown probing eyes, wily moustache and self-belief, Rao is one of the men who laid the foundation of Hindi cinema, right? What we frolickingly call Bollywood now. Ha.

Art direction by Yogesh Bansode and Priti Gole and production design by Mukund Gupta and Aparna Sud are enmeshed into Motwane’s core directorial vision. It seems like the whole team, all of you, believed in this saga of love, of lying and living in the forties. Pratik Shah’s cinematography is perhaps the most pulsating of elements here, riding over Shruti Kapoor’s costume design.

Khan saheb, since you died wearing a formal black sherwani on your way to the Lucknow station for a Karachi-bound train (the idiomatic train to Pakistan that you never boarded), I have to tell you that the style of this OTT series is in the way in which it is visualised, mounted, lighted, framed, costumed and shot. You, well only in my opinion of course, look the handsomest of them all, Nandish Singh Sandhu playing Jamshed Khan, the actor who could be, would be, and should be the storied Madan Kumar. The clothes add to the overall appeal but it is the cinematic references that speak loudly. Shamsher Singh Walia’s apt-to-the-hilt wig, your kurtas, Jay Khanna’s refugee shirts or Sumitra Kumari’s collared sari blouses, even her not-quite Gayatri Devi saris.


In the series, cinematic references speak louder than the costumes. Here, Prosenjit Chatterjee (R) in a still from the series.

Jubilee has a style and it is in mirroring how films were made in the ’40s and ’50s, how songs were sung, recorded and fantasised about as future creative franchises. In the way the logo of a Jaguar luxury car sprints into the campus of a film studio for instance. Making a point with showing Sindhi and Punjabi refugee camps in post-Partition Bombay as warring. In creating an unapologetic tribute to the blinding and burning ambition of the Hindi film industry which is a definitive part of Indian culture today.

Khan as Kumar; Kumar as Khan

If you are going to come back to life Khan saheb, and you must, because it’s the Khans who made Hindi cinema as much as the Kumars, then let me warn you about sada puttar Jay. A mean actor, that boy. He lusts and loves well but lies even better. In the film I mean. He is the cliché who will burn himself at the altar of fame to become an original star. Beware of how you act alongside him.

What’s a favourite scene to a dead man, especially one he didn’t feature in? But let me bother you for the last time in your Bardo. It is Chatterjee playing the calculating film boss Srikant Roy wanting to convince businessman Nanik Jotwani (Aarya Bhatta) about the future of playback singing. Roy plays out his fantasy, breaks into an impromptu song and Binod Das, aka Madan Kumar, becomes his consort, female in tone and tandem, the two lost, not so much in the art of singing as in the craft of acting.

Now rest Khan saheb, but only in pieces till you are roused soon.