Films on films are almost as old as film itself. From François Truffaut with Day for Night to Damien Chazelle with Babylon, filmmakers have tried time and again to capture the essence of movie making. Perspectives have changed and so have character wants but the world of movie making, its internal myths and stories have remained the same.
In Jubilee, Vikramaditya Motwane has managed to take these myths and place them in Indian history, giving it a much needed context that usually remains absent from films on films. For the longest time in popular culture, films on films have explored only a narrow perspective — the world behind the scenes, the characters who inhabit that world and their personal ambitions and stakes. What a lot of these films failed to address is the world around them — the larger world outside of the sets, the studios and the mansions.
Film as an industry, like any other industry, is dependent on the socio-economic realities of the country. When the country changes, so do its films. In more cases than not, social realities of countries fuel individualistic aspirations — a point that was largely amiss in a majority of the films in the subgenre. Jubilee breaks the mould, redfines it and creates a template for the films/series to come. Jubilee is as much a series about the impacts of partition and the changing economic tide as it is about the fictional behind-the-scenes of the biggest studio in Bombay in the late 1940s. The tide and turns of the studio were not divorced from the larger reality of partition, the politics of the time, allegiances with the US and USSR and the economic turmoil. In this, Motwane’s series shines and how.
Most of it is explored through the storyline of Jay Khanna, played by the enigmatic Sidhant Gupta, and his arc starting from the young manager of Khanna Theatre Company in Karachi to a refugee in Mumbai to finally a successful filmmaker in his own rights. Jay Khanna experiences the ground realities that Srinkant Roy, the producer of Roy Talkies, played by Prosenjit Chatterjee in one of his most significant roles outside of the Bengali industry, only hears about. Through Jay, you experience the finish and cut of his trousers when you first meet him on the train as much as you experience the sweat and blood in the dingy refugee camps where he’s forced to dream of realities bigger than his own.
Where Jubilee is different from Hollywood and Babylon
When it comes to world building and character arcs, Jubilee reminds me of two other works that are set in the 1940s and ’20s Hollywood respectively — Ryan Murphy’s miniseries Hollywood, and Chazelle’s 2022 film Babylon.
Murphy’s Hollywood, like Jubilee, is set in the post-World War II era when Los Angeles is reshaping and restructuring much of the studio system and is open to a plethora of newer talents — those who were otherwise previously with their military commitments. Hollywood, set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, is based heavily within the confines of the studio system, going deeper into why the lives of actors, filmmakers and behind-the-scenes families were the way they were. It is a worthy exploration despite a shabby screenplay. Hollywood lacked the depth and nuances with which Jubilee explored the world outside. Hence, making its characters less rootable, real and worthy of our attention. Jubilee takes the structure of Hollywood and shines brighter with its character greyness and ambitions in a way that hasn’t been seen across television screens before.
Babylon also doesn’t get too deep into the world outside its primary characters. It’s a long, crazy ride and Chazelle’s most ambitious work to date. But in Babylon, the context of the world isn’t missed as much because the film is able to go in depth of the joys and pains and filmmaking itself — something that Jubilee doesn't do quite well. There are scenes in Babylon, one early on — when a director sits by the mountain when the sun sets and apologises to God for not being able to use the perfect sunset in his film. Moments later, when the camera arrives just in time, he aggressively takes control of the whole set, screaming and shouting at people to move away so that he can take the shot of the sun setting while the two characters kiss. This, in written words, is a bizarre behaviour. For a film crew, who are aware of pains taken to get the perfect shot, the emotion is different – it’s relatable.
Babylon follows Hollywood in its transition from silent films to sound. In another scene, to show the new protocols and compromises that film sets had to take into account after sync sound was introduced, a long sequence of retakes after retakes played out till the perfect sound was recorded. A squeak, a ticking sound, loud dialogue delivery or missing the mic mark — all contributed to retakes. And when finally, the crew got the take, there was celebration on set. Of course, some of it is cinematic exaggeration. There’s no denying that. But the joys of movie making, the trials one goes through to get the perfect shot and the euphoria when one gets it is universal across time and space. Babylon thrives in it. Jubilee rarely focuses on it.
What’s common between Madan Kumar, Jack Castello and Rock Hudson
But there are character parallels in the three. Hollywood’s Jack Castello, a World War veteran with hopes of becoming an actor; Roy Fitzgerland, who changed his name to Rock Hudson; and Jubilee’s Binod Das / Madan Kumar have similar journeys. Your everyday man with big hopes gets a break in the movies, changes his name, adopts a new social personality, and the choices and sacrifices he makes defines him. Wamiqa Gabbi, who plays Niloufer, has similar roots to the wild Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie — both perceived as “uncultured” by high society till they are given a shot in front of the camera where they prove themselves. Once they prove themselves, the women need to not just remain good actors but also project morally acceptable behaviour. Despite these expectations, the two rise in the highest ranks in their respective industries and hold the position, not allowing anything to get in the way, except perhaps the matter of the heart.
Perhaps the best character parallels between the three happen with Gupta’s Jay Khanna and Diego Calva’s Manny from Babylon. Both were the eyes of the everyday man — the outsider in the magical world of film biz. Just like Manny, Khanna initially just aspired to be on set. Once both get their chance, in their own ways, they get mesmerised by the craft of filmmaking, the camera, the lensing and choreography of it all. They aren’t aspiring to be actors or the biggest stars on the screen. They want to be behind the scenes — Khanna wants to be a writer / director, who eventually also becomes an actor; Manny becomes a studio executive, taking challenging decisions — relaunching stars and reshaping careers. Oftentimes, films on filmmaking highlight those on screen, but to have perspectives of those behind them is equally important.
In recent years, the Hindi film industry has given a very limited number of films on filmmaking. The two obvious names that come to mind are Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om and Zoya Ahktar’s fantastic debut, Luck By Chance. All are very different from one another in their form, treatment and tone. But the tale of Roy Talkies will be remembered because it captured the Hindi industry at a very crucial stage — the start of the downfall of the studio system, and then going into the various socio-political reasons responsible for it.
Jubilee is in no way a perfect series. There are plot threads that seem too convenient, the ending is well tied together in a very filmi way and the choice of using songs that transition between diegetic and nondiegetic isn’t smooth in any way. But the characters, the casting and their individual ambitions are so compelling that you end up rooting for different characters at different points, and by doing so, stay connected throughout the series. The ability to highlight greyness in characters, and make the audience cheer for each one of them (yes, even Madan Kumar) is one that requires skill and nuance. And one can trust Motwane with that. With Jubilee, he has shown what the sub-genre always needed — a greater historical context.