The Fame Game, On Netflix, Is Not Half As Smart As It Appears To Be

For all its meta access, the eight-episode series looks like shallow tabloid fodder parading as an exploration of modern celebrity
The Fame Game, On Netflix, Is Not Half As Smart As It Appears To Be

Creator: Sri Rao
Directors: Bejoy Nambiar, Karishma Kohli, Sri Rao
Writers: Shreya Bhattacharya, Akshat Ghildial, Sri Rao, Amita Vyas, Nisha Mehta
Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Manav Kaul, Sanjay Kapoor, Rajshri Deshpande, Muskkaan Jaferi, Lakshvir Saran, Gagan Arora
Streaming On: Netflix

In The Fame Game, the sudden disappearance of a Bollywood superstar exposes the dysfunctionality of fame: a fragile family, opportunistic loved ones, a compromised heart, a flailing career and a lost identity. The police investigation, which is intercut with the six-month period leading up to it, reveals several skeletons tumbling out of a picture-perfect closet: "Where is she?" soon morphs into "Who is she?". And everyone – son, daughter, husband, mother, ex-flame, hair-stylist/friend, obsessive fan, random painter not modeled after M.F. Husain, dog (or not) – behaves shadowy enough to be a suspect. Yet, for all its meta access, the eight-episode Netflix series looks like shallow tabloid fodder parading as an exploration of modern celebrity. The web debut of Madhuri Dixit, as gone-girl Anamika Anand, is the show's selling point. But the makers are too busy fetishizing the film industry to be genuine about it. Every character is a composite of real-world rumours and 'insider gossip.' No theme is spared: nepotism, murder, suicide, drug addiction, starkid launches, affairs, same-sex partners, gun possession.

There is no real understanding of why humans are the way they are – it just seems attractive on paper, so it's there. At some level, the series reminded me a little of Guilty, a film dismantled by its tone of derivative wokeness. The Fame Game is longer and no wiser, systematically dismantled by its tone of derivative glamour. The problem with this series is its self-seriousness, which is stranded somewhere between (the senses of) Zoya Akhtar and (the sensationalism of) Madhur Bhandarkar. The writing is so determined to make Anamika's life worth sympathizing with that it slips in every crisis trope possible. As a result, each character is not a person but a type. Son Avi is depressed and closeted; daughter Amara is an aspiring actress burdened by her mother's name; husband Nikhil is abusive and greedy; her mother is a controlling and crude gambling addict; ex-lover and fellow middle-aged superstar Manish is bipolar; fan Madhav is a deranged orphan; the house help is too nice; investigating cop Shobha is a lesbian surrounded by sexist colleagues. Is there any colour left?

The setting feels like more of a board-game checklist, where the idea of being flawed is far more appealing than the complexities of being perfect. For instance, early on, we see Avi's failed suicide attempt. Yet, there's a strange business-as-usual vibe about the aftermath – it's like the family doesn't quite recognize the gravity of wanting to kill yourself. Mother Anamika is distressed for a bit but looks fine in no time, and father Nikhil continues to be needlessly rude with him. The screenplay is too busy establishing these family secrets to actually examine them. Ditto for Amara's sad-girl ambitions: there's something off about how her nasty grandmother reacts to her and, in turn, how she explodes. The film-making is not nearly mature enough to delve into the psyche of these teenagers, forget empathizing with their issues. (Troubled Avi is so troubled that he tries to befriend a sex worker and ends up assaulting a trans woman in one night). The same applies to the adults, too. We learn that Anamika's mother ended her relationship with co-star Manish 20 years ago and married her off to nephew Nikhil – but why? Even if she had her daughter's best interests in mind, how is a sexless marriage with a middle-class relative better than a power-couple future? I get that moviestar moms are a bit nutty, but this one takes the gluten-free cake.

Then there's the elephant in the palatial room: Anamika Anand. The series itself seems confused about who she is. Introduced as India's number one actress, she is designed as more of an ex-queen making a comeback in the age of "item girls." Her career situation leads her to reunite with co-heartthrob Manish 20 years later – both personally and professionally – a move that hijacks her status as a suffering mother, daughter and wife at home. The tussle between her dreams and her reality is obvious, but there is no emotional continuity to her character. Nikhil often physically harms her, but her trauma seldom spills over to the next scene. Sick of being manipulated by her gold-digging husband and mother, she lashes out at them, weeps in the rain to a mournful song, even cancels his credit cards, but continues to worry about the budget of their upcoming movie in the next episode. This extends to the static present-day portions, where the promotions of the film continue despite the ongoing (wo)manhunt. This is not implausible so much as unconvincing in terms of social optics. Conveying the soullessness of showbiz is well and good, but at what cost?

The performances are a victim of the meandering screenplay. It's nice to see Madhuri Dixit taking the web plunge after her '90s contemporaries like Raveena Tandon (Aranyak) and Sushmita Sen (Aarya) – but the result is mixed. Her agelessness, megawatt smile and general elegance appear to be at odds with the role she's playing. There is a sense of old-school gravitas about her face that makes it impossible to tell whether Anamika is just a plasticky person or a dated actress. It's difficult to tell between Dixit as mother, wife, lover, daughter and diva – a limitation that probably helps the plot in hindsight, but derails the red herrings. It can be argued that noble Anamika has pretended to be other people for so long that she's forgotten how to be herself, but that's giving the reel-real duality too much credit. Of all the primary performances, only Lakshvir Saran (Milestone) as the messy star-son is impressive. Manav Kaul does his best (rugged) Shah Rukh Khan impression to no avail. Sanjay Kapoor is too Sanjay Kapoor-ish. The others are too binary and too self-aware to make a lasting impact.

Because the series is confused about Anamika Anand, it uses the female cop, Shobha, as a literal mouthpiece for what we should be thinking. At one point, the no-nonsense Shobha ponders aloud: What is it about Anamika that she managed to be at the top for 30 long years? (Her male colleague duly responds with some "her smile is an escape" stuff). At another point, a humbled Shobha admits that she was wrong to scrutinize Anamika from a distance: "Such a tough life. Was there nobody she could trust and call her own?". She voices every question the show wants to ask but fails to organically express. Perhaps the intention is to convey the callousness of outsiders who are quick to make sweeping judgments about celebrities, but the execution is jarringly basic. If it isn't obvious where the show's sympathies lie, a tabloid writer named 'Pappu Kaushik' clashes with a distressed star during a press conference. The Bhumika hangover does nobody any favours, though it'd be a wild stretch to compare this to the Shyam Benegal oeuvre. 

That's not to say it's hard to watch The Fame Game. It's easy-junkfood viewing for a while, but gets tiresome once it addresses every character's conflict one by one. Whodunnits – no matter how predictable – are inherently designed to use the prize as a front for the process. The twist is the carrot; the sea of secrets is the stick. Given that the story revolves around an actress who is insecure about her crumbling legacy, the revelation can be seen coming from miles away. The final episode has that "gotcha" tone – stirring violins, snappy flashbacks, wry grins, heist rhythm – that neglects the collateral damage caused by its pursuit of cheap thrills. There's also that age-old flashback of a scared teenager being forced to meet sleazy producers by her domineering mother. The tropes simply never end. I don't usually say this as a long-form purist, but the entire series could have been a campy-cool 100-minute biopic. Or a well-written email. Unfortunately, the title Heroine is already famous – and infamous.

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