If you can train your mind to go into a sepia-toned retro world where studio owners were star makers, and you’ve heard about real-life couples like Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, co-owners of Bombay Talkies, who ruled the Hindi film industry through the 1930s and 40s, you’ll warm up to the shenanigans and scandals of Srikant Roy (Prosenjit Chatterjee), his film star wife Sumitra Kumari (Aditi Rao Hydari) and Madan Kumar (Aparshakti Khurana), the star that Roy Talkies created.
Real life whispers insisted that when Devika Rani had run away with her hero, husband Himanshu Rai had vowed revenge and turned lab assistant Kumudlal Ganguly into dashing Ashok Kumar, the rage of the 40s and 50s.
Director Vikramaditya Motwane mixes bits of real film lore with huge amounts of fiction to time-machine to the riot-torn days of the Partition, weaving an intriguing interplay between Srikant Roy, Binod Das, the loyal, nondescript employee who turns into Roy Talkies’ hottest box-office star Madan Kumar, Sumitra Devi and her lover, actor Jamshed Khan (Nandish Singh Sandhu).
Reviews, tabloids, newspapers, USSR vs USA, the Russian propaganda machinery, American spies, phone tapping, loyalties, friendships, rivalries, the dazzle of a film star, stars made and discarded, the aftermath of the Partition with distinct Punjabi and Sindhi refugee camps from where emerge the risk takers who make it in the Bombay film industry, the whole spread is laid out.
Along with Roy’s arrogance, passion and enduring belief that cinema empowers, is the vision where live song picturisations with a full orchestra on the set gives way to playback singing, the importance of music sales and music promotions over the radio. There’s even a hat tip to the legendary programme of film songs that made Radio Ceylon (Air Ceylon in the series) so popular in the 50s and 60s.
Without giving away the plot which thickens with murder, blackmail and extra-marital affairs, Motwane, co-creator Soumik Sen and writer Atul Sabharwal pack 10 episodes with all that symbolised an era gone by. An era of political incorrectness where men spouted, “If I had to choose between wife and studio, women and wives come and go…”
It sometimes feels so real that in places, Motwane has you wondering, is the reference to Raj Kapoor, the actor Russians loved? Is this Guru Dutt and his despondent cinema?
Most impressive are the performances with Prosenjit Chatterjee making a polished Srikant Roy and Aparshakti Khurana springing a surprise as shrinking loyalist Binod Das who morphs into suave Madan Kumar. Wamiqa Gabba as Niloufer the saucy courtesan from pre-Partition Lucknow, and mistress to the richest bidder, is spice and all that’s nice. Charming from the moment he’s introduced as a peppy entertainer in the waiting room of a railway station is Sidhant Gupta as Jay Khanna.
Three special mentions: Shweta Basu Prasad as Binod Das’ wife Ratna, Ram Kapoor as financier Walia, and Arun Govil as theatre owner Narain Khanna from Karachi who can entertain an audience even in a refugee camp.
Cinematographer Pratik Shah, Production Designers Mukund Gupta and Aparna Sud, Art Directors Priti Gole and Yogesh Bansode, Costume Designer Shruti Kapoor and Amit Trivedi’s songs, create a nostalgic old-world ambience, making it feel like a revisit to an old classic.
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