The Interview: Q&A with Vikramaditya Motwane
The Interview: Q&A with Vikramaditya Motwane

The filmmaker and producer has become the talk of the town for his recently-released Amazon Prime Video period series, Jubilee—a period piece resurrects the sepia-tinted memories of the golden age of Hindi cinema. He opens up about his world building and his journey into the past while reflecting on the contemporary state of Hindi cinema

With films as distinctly different from one another Udaan (2010), Lootera (2013), Trapped (2017), Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018), and AK vs AK (2020), Vikramaditya Motwane is more of a chameleon filmmaker than an auteur. His style never overpowers the script. It is difficult to figure out the Motwanesque in a movie. “My style is not as important as what the film or the series best served as. Also, I love experimenting. I am such a fan of so many different styles—I love period dramas, big action thrillers, and survival dramas — that I want to try out each. Maybe in a way, I am trying to find myself as a director also,” says Motwane as we catch up for a quick chat.



Currently, the filmmaker is basking in the success of his epic period series, Jubilee. Although in its essence it has a similar lyrical quality as his heartbreakingly beautiful 2013 cult classic Lootera, and he has previously co-directed season 1 of one of the most popular Indian web series, Sacred Games with Anurag Kashyap, Jubilee is a unique piece of work. In fact, Indian OTT has never experienced such a sprawling spectacle before.


Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, where he fictionalizes the tragic end of Sharon Tate, Motwane’s Jubilee is a fictional tale that uses a real incident as its core material and builds a fictional period piece around it and places it in a geopolitical context. Although in Motwane’s the timelines of the real and reel don’t overlap perfectly, that is by design and it is what makes the series such a delicious watch. We talk to the director about his blast from the past that has taken the present by storm. Excerpts:


While Tarantino set his Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in the golden age of Hollywood, you are revisiting the golden age of Hindi cinema. What made you pick up the Himanshu Rai- Devika Rani-Najmul Hasan incident to base your story around and then set it in the backdrop of Indian independence and the Partition, a time when Himanshu Rai was long dead?


When you are part of an industry for so long, you keep hearing its urban legends. Be it Himanshu Rai- Devika Rani-Najmul Hasan, the rise of the star Ashok Kumar from a lab assistant, the breaking up of Bombay Talkies and the formation of Filmistan studio, or how Guru Dutt cast himself in his iconic movie Pyaasa only because Dilip Kumar rejected the role after initially agreeing to do it, these are stories full of drama that you have heard over the years. I wanted to spin off from such stories and gossip and create a fictional world around it.


As for switching the timezone, that’s the liberty and fun of creating fiction. I set it during the Partition because that’s the time when everything was happening—the country’s politics was changing, the approach to filmmaking was changing, and the kinds of stories being told were changing. Setting it during that era gave it the scope and expanse and let us bring in several grass-root elements; otherwise, you would be only talking about a particular studio.


And yes, Rai was a pioneer but he didn’t do everything that Srikant Roy is credited with. For instance, he didn’t start playback singing in Hindi cinema. But this was our way of giving the audience a glimpse of the history of our cinema through an entertaining lens and a character perspective.



You have some delicious detailing in the series…right from the broken shoe of Jai to the change in the voice of early recording, to the popularity of Radio Ceylon. It seems like a lifetime of research has gone into it. What was the process like?


Our research for the show was done in 3 stages. We started with the urban legends, gossip, scandals, and oral stories we have come across while working in the industry over the years that have been passed on through generations. Then we did specific research to write the script—we researched the geopolitics of the time, on how the refugee camps functioned, the Russian and the American camps, and their hold and influence on the film industry, we did a deep dive into the banning of songs on AIR by the government in 1952, etc. There was the emergence of Ashok Kumar, but also Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor—both played these slightly roguish characters, you can find a certain amount of the ‘anti-hero’ in them in movies like Awaara and Baazi but they had a very different approach while telling stories, while Raj Kapoor has a slightly more socialistic, Dev Anand has a slightly more capitalistic. You then get to know about the influence of the Russians on Indian cinema and join the dots with Raj Kapoor going to Russia with his films and becoming a huge sensation there. The third stage was researching the costumes, set design, production design, and the like.


What’s the most interesting nugget you came across while researching that you had zero clue about?


There are lots of interesting nuggets, I think–the fact that the CIA wanted to get a Dev Anand film called Rahi (1953) banned because they felt he was talking about an uprising of people and according to them it was a bad idea, or the fact that the Russians actually had a liaison person in India who was in charge of the propaganda, and stuff like that. It was fascinating to know how complex and international things were at that stage.


You have recreated the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. And it looks authentic and exquisite. Tell us what were the biggest challenges. Which were the real locations you have used? What about the CGI?


The research was extensive and that more or less ensured that there weren’t any major challenges in putting the look together. Most of it is shot on set as we didn’t have the locations available in the city to be able to shoot a period movie or a series, especially if it is set in the ’40s and the ’50s. Everything is too modern–the streets, the pavements, the street lights, the hoardings, everything has changed. Liberty, Alfred, Maratha Mandir, and Nishat Talkies are the four theatres we shot in, apart from Ballard Estate and Mukesh Mills. We built a street from the ‘40s at a Dahisar set, on the same ground we built the set for Roy Talkies, and we did the same for the Lucknow bits where the accident takes place, we extended the sets with VFX.


Has your experience assisting Sanjay Leela Bhansali on films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas help/impact/influence in the way you have mounted this series?


Assisting Sanjay on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas hasn’t really influenced my style of filmmaking but it has definitely helped me in understanding how to mount a large set and be able to shoot at this scale with junior artists. Also, when we did those two films, it was an analog world sans VFX extensions, set extensions, and green screens, but still, we were doing all those grand stuff. So, that also came in handy while setting up Jubilee.



In the series, you show the government banning the broadcast of film music on All India Radio in 1952. We are still grappling with bans and attacks on artistic freedom. It seems to be a classic case of the more we change the more we remain the same…


Yes, it is a fact. Of course, many things have changed over the years, but I think in many ways this industry still functions exactly the same way it used to. For example, the excitement around the launching of a movie star and how a star can anchor a studio–a great modern parallel of a Srikant Roy trying to launch a Madan Kumar would be Aditya Chopra launching someone like a Ranveer Singh… the Band Baaja Baaraat film was always going to be Band Baaja Baaraat, and a star was always going to be launched in the movie. It became a Ranveer Singh movie because he turned out to be a capable actor. There are so many things that remain the same in the industry…the rivalry, the one-upmanship, the relation dynamics, the various camps, etc.


One of the stark differences between the golden age and now is that back then artistes came from places like Bengal and Punjab came to Bombay with a grand vision armed with stories rooted in their lands. But today, it seems we have lost the treasure of such stories. Now even the small-town stories have an outsider’s gaze. Do you think, that bit of the Golden Age of cinema is actually the need of the hour?


A thousand percent. I think that is exactly what we are lacking. You have hit the nail on the head. There is a general lack of ambition to tell big stories, stories that can captivate an audience inside a movie theater, leaving them there dreaming for more, dreaming of a bigger life, wanting a bigger life; the ambition of mounting something super large is missing in Hindi cinema. We have become too comfortable. Maybe that is also because you don’t have that much at stake, you are not risking your entire life, and you have not left your house and your people to make it big in this industry. Now, we have the second or third generation of those people who are comfortably settled in the city. We are not taking risks in life or in our cinema. The stories we are telling are mostly coming from the city itself. Even when we are looking at stories from a Lucknow or a Bareily, we are looking at it as something ‘cutesy’ from a lens of how lovely or exotic it is, as opposed to telling authentic stories. We need to rebuild the bridge; our lens has become an alien lens and we are looking at stories from the outside as opposed to a lens that is authentic. I think that ambition also comes from the fact that we are too dependent on movie stars to be able to launch films at a certain scale.


Jubilee is essentially about the rise of the stars and the star makers. Do you think especially with OTTs coming up, the reliance on stars is diminishing?


In India, there is still an over-reliance on stars. But I wish we could have spectacle films that depend on the story and the scale, more than a movie star. We can end up creating stars in these stories. I think the rest of the world has proven that it is possible. Hollywood, for example, has done it multiple times over multiple years. They created a movie star out of a Will Smith with Independence Day in 1996. The movie had him as the face when he was not at all a star and that is because you had faith in the creator, you had faith in the director, you had faith in the story, you had faith in the spectacle. The entire Marvel generation is built on creating stars rather than having stars in the movies. I feel we need to show that same kind of faith. It is a faith shown recently by S. S. Rajamouli. Be it Eega, Magadheera, RRR, or Baahubali, he has gone ahead and created crazy box-office successes with his spectacles that were not always essentially headlined by big stars. Not many people knew about Prabhas before Baahubali! Yes, we need stars, but not for every project. I think we often rope in a star not because the story demands it but because we want to play it safe. A little bit of risk-taking can take us a long way.


In the OTT world, it is a bit easier to make a show/series without a star, but still, I think there’s a tendency to want stars in shows because they think that the star will get them the audience. It is comparatively easier to do something with newcomers and mount them as stars in the streaming world than in the movies.


You are more prolific as a producer than a director, is it because you put in so much effort in the world-building? Was it a planned path? How does being a producer impact your decisions as a filmmaker?


I am more prolific as a producer simply because when I was working in Phantom I was producing a lot of films at that time. It was not something I prefer; I prefer being a director, a writer, a creator. But I like working with and helping newer filmmakers, and being a mentor.


Being a producer, you kind of see the filmmaking from the other side where you can understand the value of simplifying the storytelling, and mounting the film on to a platform with a specific audience in mind…those things become a part of your DNA. But the producer in me doesn’t really affect the director in me that much.



Unlike most directors, you don’t seem to have a signature as a director. Your movies, Trapped, AK Vs Ak, Udaan, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, and Lootera, each is their own unique world. How important do you think it is to have the director’s stamp over a movie?


I think what tends to happen is that you build a relationship with every film. But it is not a marriage. Like each relationship, each story is different and you need to treat them differently. You need to be a different person telling that story. The script is important. A movie or a series is about telling the story in the most authentic way possible and not establishing the director’s style. My style is not important as what the film or the series best served as. Also, I love experimenting. I am such a fan of so many different styles, I love period dramas, I love big action thrillers, I love you know survival dramas, that I want to try out each. Maybe in a way, I am trying to find myself as a director also. My favorite kind of films is the big epic action blockbuster like Diehard, Terminator 2, Back to the Future, etc. Those are my go-to movies, but I have never attempted making one so far.


Until Jubilee, I thought Bhavesh was my most accomplished film because I really like its action bits, the fighting scenes, and those bike chases and stuff. I live for those. Even in Lootera, in the second half there’s a whole chase sequence, which a lot of people came and said that was the best thing of the film. Udaan also I had a chase sequence. I love doing such things; those are my favorite kind of scenes to shoot.


There is suddenly a surge in movies made about the industry and the magic of cinema internationally. Do you think the movie theatres shutting down during the pandemic and cinemas facing a very real threat from the OTT content has triggered this meta mood?


AK versus AK was definitely meta and so was An Action Hero, there was a certain meta-ness to the films. I think with Jubilee, it’s more a straightforward kind of nostalgia as opposed to meta but there are also lots of easter eggs in this.


I agree. I never analyzed your question actually. But it might be the case. Last year we had Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, and Damien Chazelle’s Babylon—three very big movies from very big filmmakers were about the movies, which is unusual even for Hollywood. Maybe it is a generation of filmmakers looking back at their influences. I know it is true for Atul (Sabharwal) and I. I started working as an assistant director when I was 21. We have grown up in the industry– I have assisted Bhansali while he had assisted Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma) and we have a certain love story with this world of cinema.

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