Bombay Noir

A gripping period drama based on the birth of the Hindi film industry, coterminous with the birth of two nation-states

Bombay Noir


t lacks star wattage and it is not exactly a splasher, but Jubilee, a ten-episode limited series released last month on Amazon Prime Video, offers a subtle portrayal of times; both of a moment in history and its cinematic rendering in a single go.

The period series tells a fictional tale centred on the birth of the Hindi film industry in Mumbai, which was coterminous with the cleavage and birth of two nation-states; India and Pakistan.

The killing of a gifted actor, Jamshed Khan, played by Nandish Singh Sandhu, becomes the starting point of the narrative, alluding to the Hindu-Muslim tensions lurking in the dark alleys of the Mumbai film world in the 1940s.

If not that then take the line “Khans don’t become stars” delivered at one point by the lead character, Binod Das. With this dialogue, Binod, played by Aparshakti Khurana, chucks a tongue-in-cheek portent at the audience.

Vikramaditya Motwane, the director, embroiders his craft in enticing this part-fiction- part-history-part-gossip relationship with cinema and its lore.

A slow burn, Jubilee is set in the foundational days of Hindi motion pictures. The dark tale is about the drama and the exploration of the power dynamics in the studios of Bombay; ambition, revenge and murder.

Prosenjit Chatterjee as Srikant Roy and Aditi Rao Hydari as Sumitra Kumari run the Roy Talkies which is reminiscent of Bombay Talkies, a movie studio that was active between the 1930s and 1950s, a period fondly remembered as the golden era of Bollywood.

The story opens with Srikant Roy, the studio head, looking for a new star to launch under the Madan Kumar label. Roy has his eyes set on Jamshed Khan, a Muslim stage actor.

Roy summons his right-hand man, Binod Das and asks him to persuade Khan to sign up. But Binod himself is an ambitious man and his ambition does not fall short of stardom. The conflict, well-disguised by Binod at first, is one of the themes that drive the storyline.

Jubilee introduces us to an entertainment industry awash with backstabbing characters and perilous relationships. Binod ends up as Madan Kumar and is played with creamy inscrutable placidity.

A slow burn, Jubilee is set in the foundational days of Hindi motion pictures. The dark tale is about the drama and the exploration of the power dynamics in the studios of Bombay; ambition, revenge and murder.

In another strand of the story, the journey of courtesans into the Bombay films, is captured splendidly by Wamiqa Gabbi as Niloufer. Jay Khanna, played by Sidhant Gupta, represents the Punjabi refugees from Pakistan who reinvented themselves in the film town.

The warp and weft of the narrative is worked around Madan Kumar. This is where the work of screenplay and dialogue writer Atul Sabharwal is commendable.

The script writer comes up with layered characters, rooted in moments from history. It borrows from the real-life story of Ashok Kumar who had been a laboratory assistant at the Bombay Talkies for five years until he was asked by the studio owner to fill in for Najam-ul-Hassan in Jeevan Naiya.

There are references to the push and pull of Cold War without a direct mention, as in the context of the 1952 ban on broadcasting Hindi film songs by the then information and broadcasting minister BV Keskar.

Several characters and events are composite. Sabharwal comes up with nuanced characters gleaned from real moments in history and tainted by compromise.

But one must be on their guard, as a review of the web series aptly warns, “…the cynicism that initially gives Jubilee its edge undermines later attempts to make us root for some of its transactional players.”

Motwane’s previous notable essays include his debut in Uraan, a drama film released in 2010 and Sacred Games, India’s first Netflix series released in 2018.

The director has drawn on his regular actors and technical staff. The music is composed by Amit Trivedi. Production designers Aparna Sud and Mukund Gupta have paid keen attention to detail and Pratik Shah’s cinematography is simply exquisite.

After a dated credit sequence, black-and-white photos of the actors are shown with a voiceover evoking a documentary aesthetic.

Placed in the Hindi film industry in the 1940 and 1950s, in this lore of self-mythologisation there are no jarring, shrieking or hyperactive overtones, unlike Babylon (2022), but the warm and pioneering spirit of Punjabiyaat invades the city of Bombay in myriad ways. It is best represented by the profanity-addicted financier-producer character Shamsher Walia, played by Ram Kapoor.

Set in a spiral of moral chaos, Jubilee proffers a moment of caution in a tempered voice as warped ambitions take their toll.

Narendra Pachkhédé is a critic and writer who splits his time between Toronto, London and Geneva.

Bombay Noir