I ENJOYED WATCHING Vikramaditya Motwane’s 10-part OTT series, Jubilee, a drama set in the Bombay film industry in the late-1940s/early-1950s. The design of sets/locations (such as Liberty Cinema) was outstanding, while a new troupe of actors and stars emerges as we plunge into a world of iconic stars amid the rise of Hindi cinema, which occurs in parallel with the formation of the modern Indian state. I found great pleasure—as I saw many others did on social media—in recognising particular stories, individuals, and events, although no doubt I also missed many references on my first viewing.
The series depicts the struggle between a dominant studio, Roy Talkies, with its permanent staff and impressive headquarters, and the rise of the independent star/director, Jay Khanna. There are close references to Bombay Talkies, the great studio founded by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani in 1934, though the chronology is awry: Himanshu Rai died in 1940, many key personnel left during the 1940s with the founding of Filmistan in 1943, and Devika Rani married Svetoslav Roerich in 1945 and left the industry. There seems to be one brief appearance of a German director (Franz Osten) but nothing of Josef Wirsching who worked on Bombay Talkies’ Mahal (1949) and with its director, Kamal Amrohi, until his death during the making of Amrohi’s Pakeezah (finally completed in 1971). Nothing is said of the last films made by the studio, including Bimal Roy’s Maa (1952).
Sumitra Kumari (Aditi Rao Hydari) is mostly Devika Rani, but also Nargis and, perhaps, Madhubala, while Srikant Roy (Prosenjit Chatterjee) seems to refer only to Himanshu Rai, an Anglicised Bengali studio director who always wears a three-piece suit.
The series also takes elements of the history of the studio but only as the seeds for its own story. Bombay Talkies’ two significant stars, Najam-ul-Hassan, and Devika Rani, had a hit with Jawani Ki Hawa (directed by Franz Osten, 1935), before eloping to Calcutta during the shooting of Jeevan Naiya. Sashadhar Mukherjee, producer at Bombay Talkies (later founder of Filmistan and Filmalaya, whose grandchildren include Ayan Mukherji and Kajol) went to Calcutta and persuaded her to return to Rai. Himanshu Rai replaced Najam with Ashok Kumar, Sashadhar’s brother-in-law, and the film was released in 1936. Najam joined New Theatres, acting in films (as Najmul Hussain) where he played a side role to Prithviraj Kapoor and KL Saigal before migrating to Pakistan where he acted in minor roles.
In Jubilee, a studio technician, Binod Das, goes to Lucknow to persuade Sumitra to leave Jamshed Khan, but ends up being involved in his murder during a Partition riot. Binod Das takes on the name intended for Jamshed, Madan Lal, as he steps up to be the new star of the studio. Binod Das’ character is based loosely on Ashok Kumar (real name Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly) but Aparshakti Khurana has more of Dilip Kumar’s look, at least in his eyes and hair, and brooding character. The famous Urdu writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, who also worked for Bombay Talkies, writes about Ashok Kumar saving him from the Partition riots in Bombay. Is Jamshed Khan, whose scarred ghost appears later, reminiscent of Kewal in Raj Kapoor’s Aag (1948), his film about theatre and the rise of cinema?
As in real life, the studio system collapsed and the post- 1947 period saw the rise of the independent producer who might own a studio but one where stars and others worked on a freelance basis. It also saw the arrival of the Punjabis in the industry, many of whom moved from Lahore following the Partition.
Jay Khanna (Sidhant Gupta), who witnessed the murder, worked in a theatre company in Karachi but after Partition, lived in a Punjabi refugee camp in Bombay. His character seems to be based on Dev Anand as he is making and starring in a film called Taxi Driver, the same name as Chetan Anand’s film of 1954. However, given the song that Niloufer sings, ‘Babuji bhole bhaale’, which is similar to ‘Babuji dheere chalna’, from Aar Paar, Guru Dutt’s film of 1954 where he played a taxi driver, doubts may set in. But he seems to be Raj Kapoor in the songs of Amit Trivedi, lyrics by Kausar Munir, as there are two songs which remind us of those in Shree 420 (1955): ‘Itni si hai dastan’ even looks like ‘Pyaar hua ikrar hua’ as the couple huddle under an umbrella, an accordion plays and Mohammed Irfan sounds like Mukesh, before another song, ‘Dariya cha raja’ (the title of a song from Do Jasoos, 1975, picturised on Shailendra Singh even though Raj Kapoor plays one of the Jasoos-es) which sounds like Manna Dey’s ‘Ramaiya vastavaiya’, but this is surprisingly pictured on Binod Das. Jay Khanna and Sumitra Devi appear in ‘Na koyi mera’ in his film Baiju Awaara which looks like the famous Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951), but Jay can dance as energetically as Shammi Kapoor. But then Jay Khanna could be ‘J’ or Jatin Khanna, the real name of Rajesh Khanna.
Like Sumitra Devi, the courtesan Niloufer (Wamiqa Gabbi) blends Nargis with the courtesan figure. Although female stars led films throughout the 1950s, Roy says he needs a hero in order to avoid a flop like Mehboob’s earlier film, Aurat (1940), which will be remade as the great colour epic, Mother India (1957). This film will have its premiere at Liberty Cinema which we see in the series and is shown in Dev Anand’s Kala Bazar (1960).
Jubilee is more than just a fun exercise for fans of Hindi film history. Like all historicals, it is also about the time in which it is made. History is being reconsidered today with a changing emphasis on its villains and heroes. Jubilee is also very much about the media, as the series devotes great attention not only to film but also to newspapers and magazines, the telephone, and the radio
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Jubilee is more than just a fun exercise for fans of Hindi film history. Like all historicals, it is also about the time in which it is made. History is being reconsidered today with a changing emphasis on its villains and heroes. Jubilee is also very much about the media, as the series devotes great attention not only to film but also to newspapers and magazines, the telephone, and the radio: AIR ‘bans’ film music in 1952, and as the producers withdraw licences, the Binaca Geetmala starts to be played on Radio Ceylon. Magnetic tape allows the film song to be freed from the microphone and playback singing and dance performances become widespread, but it is also used to make secret recordings of conversations and tapped phone calls. So today, Amazon produces large-budget series by Hindi film directors as OTT serials that offer huge potential in dealing with the changing form of the Hindi film.
The series contains many anachronisms in its references to the Hindi film industry and should be viewed as having an unreliable narrator. Does it matter, for example, that we hear of metric measurements and a decimal currency though these were only adopted in India in the latter part of the 1950s? It doesn’t, but it makes us reflect on what are the bases of the history depicted onscreen. Is it Saadat Hasan Manto, who may or may not be Asghar in the series, but who plays only a small part? Could we ask if Vikramaditya Motwane, the director of the lovely film Lootera (2013), has picked up elements of Raj Kapoor’s style, notably, his emphasis on fire? Is the courtroom drama like that in Awaara where the family and the state are put on trial? (And I note that judges never have gavels in British or Indian courts, but their deployment is a sign of Americanisation.)
The answer may be more complex. There is a great set piece of a song, ‘Saare se saare akele’ lip-synched by Naren Das, who as the younger brother of Binod Das, is seemingly based on Kishore Kumar. It is in the style of Guru Dutt’s ‘Dekhi zamaane ki yaari’ from Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), as is underlined by the reference to the use of Cinemascope in the series’ film, Kashmir Ke Phool. Guru Dutt’s film is set in the Indian film industry of the 1930s but is seen as showing his own life story, perhaps supporting my contention that Motwane’s series is as much a commentary on today’s industry as that of post- Independence India.
About The Author
Rachel Dwyer is an author and culture critic based in London. She has written extensively on Hindi cinema and is an Open contributor
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