India’s biggest heroine disappears. That may be the premise for new Netflix mystery The Fame Game, but it is also what newspapers and magazines were saying two decades ago when Madhuri Dixit packed her bags and swiftly exited the spotlight, vanishing into suburban anonymity as she settled abroad. In an industry where deities cling desperately to pedestals, such a retreat felt unprecedented. She was once the alpha of the Hindi film industry, carrying films on her shoulders — and on her smile. Nobody after her has come close.
When she returned, the faces who sold the tickets had changed. Admirers thirsted for a comeback, but the second-innings has been unremarkable: Aaja Nachle was a misfire, Dedh Ishqiya beautiful but too literary to draw large audiences, and Gulaab Gang barely watchable. Tragically, a generation knows Dixit only as a reality show judge, and she deserves a genuinely worthy showcase.
In Sri Rao’s The Fame Game, a series where Dixit plays “India’s biggest heroine.” Her character Anamika Anand is a bankable superstar, mother, wife, and lover. She’s also missing. The series is, therefore, set around dramatically unfolding flashbacks while the audience is meant to guess who is behind her disappearance. It’s a whodunnit without a body.
The first episode is significantly bumpy. Anamika’s husband is confused when the police ask if they got a ransom demand, because “she doesn’t have any enemies.” Anamika herself, asked by an interviewer what stars are like, responds “sooraj ki tarah” and “taaron ki tarah,” basically saying that stars are… stars.
It gets better. The show unfolds to exhibit the various facets of Anamika’s life — all miserable, all dysfunctional — and this is a good-looking, well-cast series with solid performances from Rajshri Deshpande as the investigating police officer and Manav Kaul as a superstar who has a history with Anamika both on and off screen.
Kaul — known most for his work on-stage and in independent films — looks mildly out of place on a billboard advertising wristwatches. Yet he inhabits the self-assurance of a popular star, waving to crowds from balconies. He plays off Dixit fluently, and their effortless camaraderie may be the show’s highlight. “How many Filmfare Awards do you have?” he teases. “Two more than you do,” she replies, always at her best around this contemporary who shares her profession and her past.
Dixit is luminous as ever, taking many a blow in this narrative where everyone seems disdainful toward Anamika. She wears her stardom lightly — even warily — and when we see a film crew requesting her to wait because a male co-star has gotten dance-steps wrong or hasn’t arrived on time, her resigned impatience feels vividly real. It is delightful to see Dixit in mom-mode, casually chiding or comforting a child; it’s even better to see her inflamed when a financier makes an inappropriate suggestion. As Anamika, she gives us a lot to read between the lines. She’s the kind of actress who can do more with a side-eye than most can with a soliloquy.
The problem with The Fame Game is that the mystery is never compelling. We aren’t told specific details — when and where Anamika vanished, who was the last person to see her, who discovered she was missing — and there are no intriguing clues or insightful breakthroughs. Everyone who knew Anamika lies when interrogated, but this secrecy (or at least the secrecy of those who will eventually emerge innocent) is counterproductive to an apparent desire to get Anamika back. Rao wants to make us think everyone from the star’s mother to her daughter may somehow be involved, but the plot or its twists never engage.
The entire whodunnit angle feels too plainly like what it is: a framing device for a character study, a drama about a troubled actress who has to keep putting on a gleamingly happy face for the cameras while her life is in turmoil. A straightfaced drama series would have been sharper, because despite a dull mystery, The Fame Game offers smart asides: Anamika’s son flinching at a song featuring his mother playing during a sexual encounter, Anamika’s mother fat-shaming Anamika’s daughter who feels plain but keeps pushing down a sense of entitlement, Anamika herself wanting and deserving an affair…
Then there are overwritten bits, which may be turning into new tropes for Indian streaming shows: The Fame Game features a young boy visiting a prostitute much like we saw in Bombay Begums (also on Netflix) and the investigative officer happens to be gay, like in Aarya (Disney+ Hotstar).
Now, Anamika Anand may not be Madhuri Dixit, but she certainly shares Dixit’s filmography. We see that she danced to (that bizarrely inappropriate song) Chane Ke Khet Mein and starred in Tezaab and Kalank. This blurring of the line between character and subject is a restrictive choice, because Dixit ends up playing a representation of herself rather than an entirely new character, which could have freed her to be messier, more flawed, less limited by the Madhuri of it all.
At one point in the show, Rajshri Deshpande’s cynical, no-nonsense cop is berated for ‘dressing like a man.’ This is a complaint Dixit faced frequently in her own career, though in her case it was about getting paid more than her male co-stars and getting first-billing on the film posters. At the time of Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Madhuri Dixit was the highest paid actor in the country. The Fame Game is a reminder that she’s been around, willing to take on compelling material, and it’s the storytellers who need to up their game. That complaint has never been about shirts vs sarees. It’s about wearing the pants.
Streaming tip of the week:
Workplace comedy Space Force (Netflix) is back for a second season, with Steve Carrell leading a dimwitted team to final-ish frontiers. It’s forgettable fun but — thanks to cast-members John Malkovich, Jimmy O Yang, Tawny Newsome and Ben Schwartz — a highly breezy binge. Blast off.
Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of 'The Godfather'.