Madhuri Dixit made her debut in the OTT landscape, which was always going to raise anticipation. This comes in the wake of the wave of Bollywood actresses of the 90s getting a sort of second life in web series, hosted by a popular streaming service. Sushmita Sen returned with ferocity in “Aarya,” while Raveena Tandon made a fiery comeback in “Aranyak.” Now Madhuri Dixit, one of the undisputed queens of Bollywood in the 90s, gets her comeback shot in the form of “The Fame Game,” an 8-episode Netflix series.
This lengthy preamble dealing with Dixit’s return to our screens is necessary. Because she is the draw, the star around which the narrative is set. “The Fame Game” deals with the story of Anamika Anand, a Bollywood superstar and quite possibly one of the most famous actresses. The narrative begins with her sudden disappearance, and when ACP Shobha Trivedi is brought into the case, she slowly starts chipping away at the secrets of Anamika’s life, revealing uncomfortable truths related to both her and her family and her inner circle.
The genre mix of a thriller with a family drama is the new genus of storytelling that Indian Streaming Services has decided to craft. The problem with any sort of genre mix is that both genres should be given an equal amount of attention and care. The premise of “The Fame Game,” is undoubtedly going to be the thriller aspect, because thrillers promise an easy fix of adrenaline for the audience. The anticipation of seeing and reveling in the luridness and convolution of a thriller story is enticing enough for a viewer to dive into a story. The family drama, with all of its complexities and tawdry nature, is supposed to tide the viewer through the appropriate number of hours. This mystery and the family complexities are supposed to work in tandem until the climax crescendos. “The Fame Game” also had the added advantage of showcasing a story about the inner lives of Bollywood actresses, tawdry details, affairs, and serotonin, which would be a given form of entertainment on a simplistic level. To that extent, “The Fame Game” would have succeeded if it hadn’t been so long.
An 8-episode show of 45 minutes each wouldn’t be much of a task for someone who is a serial binge-watcher. However, the caveat is that each form of a story, each form of revelation, or each form of character beat would be showcased interestingly to maintain that level of interest. Two timelines are at work in this story. The events leading up to Anamika’s disappearance and the events that follow Anamika’s disappearance.
The primary problem occurs when the show shifts focus from Anamika’s story. Perhaps it is due to Madhuri Dixit’s screen presence and her incandescent charisma, but as it had been marketed previously, she was the primary draw. So when “The Fame Game” focuses on the central mystery of her disappearance, or how she is reacting to the events occurring in her life, or the backstory of her life, which is only disappointingly hinted at, the show is engaging. Her chemistry with Manav Kaul, who plays Manish Khanna, the actor with whom she had sizzling chemistry both on and off-screen; her relationship with her husband behind closed doors and in front of a captive audience. The dichotomy of the life of a celebrity is given a semblance of nuance here, a modicum of sensitivity, and that is one of the few credits I could give to this show.
The semblance of sensitivity is perhaps to show the human beings underneath these mythical creatures that we, as fans, love to put on a pedestal. But that form of humanization sometimes becomes almost an apologetic or even a defensive form of storytelling. A method to accept nepotism and privilege and yet show the myriad forms of problems related to expectations saddled on these individuals due to the children being the progenies of these stars. On paper, these look like layers of character development. On the screen, these become unnecessary backstories, dragging the narrative down due to slipshod and clichéd writing. It also doesn’t help that the characters in the show call out these issues of nepotism so blatantly. Self-awareness is appreciated; too much of that runs close to being arrogant and, worse, lazy. This unnecessary backstory dragging these secondary characters causes one of the primary problems related to subplots. What the writers believe to be interesting subplots to explore are completely disconnected from what the audience wants to see. The backstories of Anamika’s mother, her trusty caretaker, her past, and why her mother wanted to rule over that household with an iron fist were far more interesting. Instead, the makers stretch these arcs to perhaps an episode or three too long. It would have helped if some of the character arcs were believable. Their inclusion felt unnecessary, but most importantly, they weren’t developed enough. This holds true, especially for the arc of Amara, Anamika’s daughter. Her character is so naive and becomes an annoyance at points, it’s hard to buy where she finally goes. The inclusion of Avinash, Anamika’s son, might feel unnecessary, but his arc at least tracks with the theme of self-acceptance and finding yourself, the theme which even Anamika’s character is trying to emulate and process throughout “The Fame Game.” The most egregious subplot is that of Madhav, an obsessed fanboy of Anamika, whose arc connects with Amara’s and lends an air of unbelievability to the whole proceedings.
It’s in the final two episodes where the show finally rights itself, gets back to the proceedings, and in the process starts peeling off the complex layers the show had been hinting at throughout the previous six hours. Calling the result rewarding would be a stretch, but “The Fame Game” does manage to show a surprising amount of dexterity and character beats in moments, especially dealing with Manish and his mental issues. These final two episodes also manage to shed some of the air of superficiality that the show has carried throughout its run; the glossy shine, the air of wealth and prestige. Instead of luxuriating in that power, or dealing with the prospect of wealth, or at least having a bit of self-awareness and taking the piss out of them, that would have been a far better change of tone. The show, however, takes this storytelling deathly seriously. It, however, turns into a plodding affair, with the investigators more interested in telling the audience the motives instead of interacting in interesting ways to let the audience be hooked into the mystery themselves.
“The Fame Game” is, however, catnip for Madhuri Dixit fans, sometimes to its detriment. From dance numbers to referencing her previous works, both literally and through dialogue, it is a love letter to fans. And Dixit deserves the attention because she is exquisite in the role. There is very little to point out her flaws here; she is almost incandescent, and every time she is on the screen, the show is engaging. The performances from the rest of the cast are above reproach. From Sanjay Kapoor delivering fantastic second innings of his career in playing complex characters; to Manav Kaul delivering enough of his acting chops to transform himself into the beating heart of his show; to Muskaan Jafferi as Amara and Lakshvir Saran as Avinash fulfilling their character arcs to their potential, however flawed those arcs maybe, “The Fame Game” is filled with fantastic performances, which manages to bring this show to a level where length and pacing are too long to become must-watch TV, but Madhuri’s incandescence might be enough to pull you in for a second season.