I didn’t know I needed Madhuri Dixit but, apparently, I did.
I was a lifelong Sridevi girl (ignore me. This was obviously a competition just in my head. Most people could maintain perfectly cultivated fandoms for both in their heads). The tragic death of Sridevi in 2018 is something I like to pretend hasn’t happened. I like to pretend she is somewhere having a bittersweet time looking at the world with those thick-fringed eyes.
Seeing Madhuri Dixit in the streaming series The Fame Game, however, has taught me that I might have always needed Madhuri as well and just didn’t know it. It’s like bibliomancy or tarot. Of all the million things I could have watched in quarantine last week, I saw The Fame Game, and, apparently, the grown-up composure of Madhuri Dixit in the face of every kind of disaster was the sign I had been waiting for.
I wondered whether The Fame Game was going to be the kind of notionally female-centred but totally ignorable project there have been many of. As Anamika Anand, the movie star who disappears, it would have been easy to turn Madhuri into a large and attractive cutout. But from the first episode, it was clear that this was a piece of magically achieved auto-fiction about the real Madhuri and the women of her generation, and all women who may not be actors but have learnt to do a ton of acting. When Kalyani (Suhasini Mulay) tells her superstar daughter, Anamika, that if she thought the respectability achieved by marriage and having a placeholder husband (played by a truly excellent Sanjay Kapoor) had nothing to do with her success, she was being naïve, I sat up. Not the first or last time while watching this show, though.
Art projects that are feminist only in posture, even if sincere and well-intentioned, take on a you-go-girl tone, much like the sloganeering that justifies war. Here instead was a more complicated show about women’s lives that was undefeated by realism, untempted by postures. Instead, its universe exuded a kind of duniyadari, a welcome worldliness. It entirely eschews the borrowed cynicism that is the hallmark of a kind of realistic project—where boys, aka the creators, pretend that they are men by venturing to some marginally shady part of town. In fact, in the moment that the actual young boys in this show go to a shady establishment to borrow edgy coolness, their first disappointed (and hilarious) exclamation is that it is all very respectable. The young woman that one of them—Anamika’s son, Avinash—meets talks lovingly of her family, the pageantry of weddings and the hollowness of marriage. Unlike the standard vamp with a golden heart who exists to reveal the emotional range of the hero, she reveals her emotional range and duniyadari when she semi-seriously suggests she marry Avinash—she could go to college during the day and make rotis for him in the evening. When Anamika is angry with Avinash for not knowing the name of this young sex worker he was with, her anger is not coming from a political abstraction but from actual familiarity with that world. There is none of the easy comfort of easy solidarities of women in this show.
The (queer) investigating officer Shobha Trivedi (played by a thrilling Rajshri Deshpande) has no easy solidarity for the missing movie star either, just impatience and disgust with the family that falls to pieces in her absence. She admires competence. And she admires Anamika’s competence in managing her life. Her male colleague draws her attention to the fact that Anamika has somehow outlasted all her male colleagues in show business. “Don’t talk to me about sexism,” snaps ACP Shobha. But it does get her thinking about Anamika. And immediately has you thinking about Madhuri as well.
Here she is, in a major project, a woman in her 50s, playing a woman in her 40s. In a role that treats her as a fully rounded creature of the world, tough, loving, ambitious, sexually confident. What ridiculous levels of competence does she have? What ridiculous levels of competence has she always had to not just barely survive, but fully live the way she has?
Female fragility is always more romantic. Women who apparently (somehow) don’t know how attractive they are have songs written about them. Every woman has a boyfriend who tells them how beautiful they look when they cry. All these things are true.
But some of us have a fatal attraction in life and fiction for those who declare themselves “perfect. Whole as the marble, founded as the rock”, à la Shakespearean machismo. For those who may cry but then wipe their tears and go and look carefully at the accounts books. If you, like me, didn’t know you needed Madhuri Dixit, now you know.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.