‘The Fame Game’ Starts With an Interesting Hook – and Takes it Nowhere at All

A new Netflix series, The Fame Game, has an intriguing hook: a Bollywood star, Anamika (Madhuri Dixit), renowned for disappearing in her roles, literally disappears one morning from her house. Her phone, wallet and other essentials are still in her bedroom. There are no signs of obvious scuffle – there’s no ransom call – there’s nothing. As if she didn’t even exist. But her family does – her producer husband Nikhil (Sanjay Kapoor), her son Avi (Lakshvir Saran), her daughter Amu (Muskkaan Jaferi), her mother (Suhasini Mulay) – and they’re all hiding secrets, not just from the cops but also each other. So is Anamika.

But it’s quite evident – right from the start – that the filmmaking is fundamentally flawed. Like many mediocre fictions, The Fame Game, directed by Sri Rao, feeds us one cue after the other, overcrowding the story. Take the first episode for instance. It cuts to a flashback, where Anamika longingly looks at a “best couple” trophy awarded to her and her co-actor, a famous Bollywood figure, Manish Khanna (Manav Kaul). We instantly get that this person has played, and will play, an important role in Anamika’s life, but the series shows and tells – and shows and tells – all the while trying hard to be ‘subtle’. Anamika and Nikhil reach Manish’s house, where they keep exchanging sly glances, dropping enigmatic lines (“old stories are best forgotten”) and remembering their past when her husband is not around.

Then, the investigating cop, Trivedi (Rajshri Deshpande), starts interrogating Anamika’s family on a bizarre – and forced – hostile note. Avi, too, keeps throwing tantrums (yes, we get it, he’s hiding a secret – and no, it still doesn’t justify his surliness). Anamika’s mother, who lives in the same house, is controlling and rude, and she remains controlling and rude. And these are just three important characters – the show has many and, with some minor exceptions, they neither illuminate nor entertain. These are not people, but poor conceptions responding to poorer writing briefs. Mind you, we’re still in the first episode.

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And it keeps getting worse. Even with all the needless cues, The Fame Game is undecided about its tone. It starts off as a thriller – with an amped up background score, the disappearance of Anamika, the police investigation – but, in the subsequent episodes, Trivedi vanishes for long stretches, and we get labyrinthine subplots instead that point towards a domestic drama. Again, we’re told enough times (and more) that this family is “hiding a secret”. Besides the bad-tempered Avi, there’s an emasculated Nikhil, an insecure Amu, a disoriented Manish, an enigmatic make-up man, a deranged stalker, a sleazy producer, an eccentric painter – and a very tired audience. Just the fact that I can prefix an adjective to describe all these characters testifies how poorly they’re conceived.

For a show centred on Bollywood, The Fame Game provides scant insight into the industry or its professionals, even when characters, such as Manish and Anamika, talk – or seem to give an impression to talk – a lot about the industry and its people. It jars even more because the makers are convinced about the characters’ profundity. Here’s a small sample from the sixth episode (when the stakes are already high): “Who is she? No one knows”; “What is real? What is not?” In one scene in the fourth episode, Nikhil tells Avi that “I failed you as a father” with such utter nonchalance, as if he’s discussing brunch plans.

Then there’s the ‘progressive’ card. It’s of course heartening that Hindi shows are trying to be inclusive – especially in the realm of same-sex relationships, as Bollywood’s record of depicting marginalised stories has been quite poor – but as several recent shows attest (including the awful thriller Human), such explorations, lacking depth and nuance, seem nothing more than vapid self-congratulatory exercises. When that falls short, expect to hear some forced lines about feminism. Such random clueless and trite writing, featuring brainless transitions, inform the entire show.

Dixit is a huge letdown. Like her character, the performance is insipid, flat and forgettable. A lot of it is, yes, just bad writing, but Dixit doesn’t do nearly enough. It’s a performance of such monumental stagnancy and minimal screen presence that, in an expression of cruel irony, you don’t miss the missing Anamika when she’s not in the frame. This is such an indifferent production that it makes some otherwise credible performers, such as Deshpande (impressive in Sacred Games and Manto), unbearable.

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In fact, only two actors stand out: Kaul, who plays a poorly written role with a lot of conviction and charm, and, Arora, by far the best performer in the series. Last seen in Tabbar (where he was quite striking), Arora is terrific here. He plays the stereotypical stalker with memorable originality. His face is often marked by several contradictory expressions – happy, sad, nervous, hesitant; almost always topped by a smile – and the resultant portrait depicts a person, not a character; someone who lives, not just exists.

But the most disappointing bit about the show is that it drags, so much that it drains your energy. I often see mediocre films and series, and write their reviews soon after. But The Fame Game tired me so much that I slept for a few hours straight once it got over, as if I wanted it to leave my body and soul. This Netflix piece has neither.

Featured image: Netflix

This review was first published on The Wire.