Directors: Ananya Banerjee, Gauravv K Chawla
Writer: Ananya Banerjee
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Raghubir Yadav, Lara Dutta, Kritika Kamra, Soha Ali Khan, Anya Singh, Varun Thakur
DOP: Linesh Desai
Editor: Ninad Khanolkar
Streaming on: ZEE5
You learn to laugh at bad dramas, horror and thrillers over the years. But bad comedy is still a googly – does one cry, cringe or sigh? At least if it's a film, the end is swift and intense. When it's a ten-episode web series, though, there is no escape. Viewers like myself end up gearing through the five stages of grief. While watching Kaun Banegi Shikharwati, my denial got so strong that I decided to look at it through the prism of Disney-style children's entertainment. For an episode, it became tolerable. My anger subsided. Bargaining took over. I thought: hey, if it's made for kids, maybe it isn't so tacky. Maybe I'm not the target audience. After all, how often do Indian OTT originals cater to the youngest demographic? But this approach quickly failed. A depressing truth emerged. Even as a live-action cartoon, the show is all over the place. Over 300 minutes of awkward filmmaking is difficult to tolerate, no matter how old you are.
Kaun Banegi Shikharwati has a goofy premise. A lonely sovereign (Naseeruddin Shah) decays away in his old Rajasthani palace with his trusted advisor (Raghubir Yadav), until he's hit with a massive wealth tax by the government. The property is at stake. The advisor convinces him to 'pass on' the debt by inviting his four estranged daughters and have them duke it out in a 9-stage contest to inherit his crown. He knows they are in need of both validation and money. In short, he exploits their strife and turns them against one another to distract from his own crumbling legacy. This could be construed as a cute send-off to India's ruling government, but I don't think the writing is that smart. What follows is an interminable and shapeless portrait of people who aren't half as idiosyncratic as they appear. The sound cues are juvenile, the royal games (cooking, horse-riding, performing, tailoring, table-tennis, a haunted room…) are utterly random, the direction lacks experience, and there is little to no chemistry between all humans on screen.
Lara Dutta plays the oldest, Devyani, an intimidating mother hen who's sick of her husband's shady dealings. Soha Ali Khan, an actress of actual royal heritage, plays Gayatri, a spiritual recluse hoping to start her own ashram. Kritika Kamra plays Kaamini, a ditzy social media influencer who's cancelled after posting an insensitive reel about poor people. And Anya Singh plays the youngest, Uma, an introverted video-game creator (her creation: 'Rajkumari Rescues') in need of funding. I've described the four so that the simplistic "slotting" is apparent. None of the actresses look convinced by the women they're representing, least of all Kamra, who overcooks an Alexis-meets-Poo prototype to make social media fame even more vapid than it looks. Soha Ali Khan is the serious one, trying to lend some sanity to the mess. I kind of get where she's coming from. It's a good time to mention that my great grandfather was the Maharaja of Patiala, so I've had a front-row seat to the delusions of his struggling descendents. It's why I have the right to take the mediocrity of this series personally.
The little details – like the age-gap between the oldest and youngest being 6 years – are jarring. The great Naseeruddin Shah tries to play the King like an advanced version of Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na's Ranjhore ka Rathore, but he is unable to escape Hindi cinema's cursed view of him as the go-to 'irresponsible father looking to make amends'. Here, too, he attempts to bond with adult children he had once abandoned; this languid misfire only makes me value movies like Ishqiya for daring to imagine him as a rustic rogue.
The opening few minutes – which presents a grieving king left behind by time and tide – evokes Kaun Kitne Paani Mein, a neatly composed satire set in the water-starved regions of Odisha. A few villagers of Shikharwat resent their ruler for being a neglectful fossil, a track that promises to explore the empty prestige of modern-day royalty. But Kaun Banegi Shikharwati charts its own superficial path, refusing to go beyond its blinkered understanding of family reunions, clashing personalities, childhood conflict and the perils of privilege. It wastes a perfectly reasonable cast and an Aisha-meets-Khoobsurat palette to stay flimsy and focused on the personal politics in the palace. The one-on-one exchanges with the father are laboured, the Small-Wonder-like act by Gayatri's little girl is creepy, and Varun Thakur's entry as the Prince of Mewar is a red herring as old as time. There's an entire Holi episode where nothing happens except rising tensions between the daughters; yet, I couldn't feel a thing for any of them, because the rhythm just seemed off. Raghubir Yadav's voiceover – as a commentator introducing each new round – is designed as nursery rhymes, a misguided attempt to disguise the show's lack of maturity. The only aspect that's half-sweet is the terminology used by the sovereign and his advisor to address one another: King and Friend. Watching the two old actors play along is soothing but also perplexing. At the twilight of such distinguished careers, the last thing they need is a forgettable web series engaging their talent and time.
Most of all, the blocking of scenes lacks a sense of space and timing. For instance, in the penultimate episode at a dinner table, each of the women have a separate moment (Kaamini declares her love, Devyani scolds her husband again) before the King delivers a sermon to heal them, before a loan shark magically appears with a gun at the other corner of the table. The makers assume that the camera's line of vision is also the characters' line of vision, a rookie mistake that suggests nobody saw the glorified gangster enter the large room and help himself to some food. At another point, all the daughters enter the King's bedroom and presume him dead; they start confessing all the naughty things they did as kids. When he wakes up, they all get emotional and leave the room after hugging him. It's one thing to be a genre-fluid series, it's another altogether to be a genre-fluid scene; the former collates many emotions for the price of one, but the latter is simply muddled staging. This is fundamentally unsound storytelling, the sort that can deter the most forgiving of viewers from enjoying its brand of non-humour.
Midway through, one can sense the script has completely run out of engineered quirk, so it turns the king into someone who's hallucinating and paranoid – a trait that goes nowhere, even though he has fooled his girls into believing he's dying. He's not a very nice father. On another day, his name would be Logan Roy, and his four dysfunctional children would be ruthlessly undercutting each other to be his successor. But this is India; everyone must be redeemed and every problem must be resolved, even if it means deriving entertainment (?) out of watching four grown women clown around like circus animals for a toxic parent. There is a place for blue blood but not bad blood. Which brings me to the fifth and final stage of grief: Acceptance. I accept Kaun Banegi Shikharwati for what it is – a sugary exercise in nothingness.