The Fame Game — the new Netflix series with Madhuri Dixit Nene, now streaming — at its heart, desires to be an examination of the dark side of being a celebrity. That explains the title switch from the more intriguing and psychological Finding Anamika to the plainer and more generic The Fame Game. Through its new title, the makers posit, it will dive into the cult of stardom. And who better to lead such a TV show than one of Bollywood’s biggest yesteryear “superstars” in Dixit Nene. But despite being made by some of the biggest insiders in town — Karan Johar is a producer — The Fame Game has very little of concrete to say about the underbelly of being famous. If anything, it comes across as fan fiction at times, like outsiders projecting what they hear in the news. It ought to offer a deeper reflection — but too often, it ends up treading in clichés and surface-level observations.
It doesn’t help that The Fame Game is poor on most accounts. The dialogue is either empty, terrible, or superficial. Characters speak highly of others to convey their greatness to the audience. Actors deliver lines as if they are being read off the page. This is a sign of poor direction too, which rears its head elsewhere with scenes heightened for no reason. I kept waiting for deeper, smarter conversations to happen but they never came. If fictitious characters are going to have mundane conversations, why am I watching this? TV writers spend weeks and months on their scripts, their interactions have to feel richer than what we say in real time. I’ve seen six of the eight episodes — that’s what Netflix gave us critics access to — and it would take a miracle for The Fame Game to get any better from here on.
Sri Rao — a co-writer on the “catastrophically stupid” 2016 sci-fi romantic drama Baar Baar Dekho — is credited as the creator, writer, and showrunner on The Fame Game, so most of the blame lies there. Bejoy Nambiar (Wazir, Shaitan) and Karishma Kohli (Mentalhood, the fluffy Karisma Kapoor comedy-drama series) direct The Fame Game episodes. Nambiar was hailed as a new-wave filmmaker post Shaitan, but he’s been on a downward curve since. Amita Vyas, Shreya Bhattacharya, and Akshat Ghildial (Badhaai Ho, Badhaai Do) serve as Hindi dialogue writers. Vyas and Bhattacharya seem to be in-house Netflix writers, given their involvement on other Indian originals.
Aside from its thematic failures, The Fame Game crumbles structurally too. The new Indian Netflix series is designed as a missing-persons detective thriller — it largely consists of a split timeline, with present day running in parallel with flashbacks that start six months prior to the incident — which requires creating an environment and a mood for its universe that the audience is going to be immersed in. But tonal consistency is seemingly not a subject that has been taught to these writers. Because five minutes in, The Fame Game uses its casting of the erstwhile Bollywood musical queen with a million-dollar smile to give us a song and dance sequence that’s not in keeping with what the series is meant to be. It’s an entirely artificial fan service inclusion — and it happens more than once.
At one point early in The Fame Game’s first episode, a character laments that “the idiot director doesn’t know what they are doing. They just keep ballooning the budget. I gave them everything: costumes, sets, locations. So many workshops and they deliver a crap movie?” In that scene, the character is talking about a movie they are producing — but that’s exactly how I also felt about the new Netflix series. Well, save for that acting workshop bit. Because clearly there was none of that.
The Fame Game primarily follows the Anands. Dixit Nene plays Bollywood star Anamika “Anu” Anand (née Vijju Joshi), the sole earner of the family who is holding onto her fame for she believes she has nothing else. Her husband Nikhil More (Sanjay Kapoor) has little affection for his wife, and her mother (Suhasini Muley) claims to do everything for them but she is biting, caustic, and feels she doesn’t get the respect she deserves. Both have money problems that have depleted Anamika’s finances — unbeknownst to her. Her youngest Amara “Amu” Anand (Muskkaan Jaferi) craves the limelight like her mother, as she wants to be more than “Anamika’s daughter”. And her troubled depressed son Avinash “Avi” Anand (Lakshvir Singh Saran) lashes out at everyone in his life who try to care for him.
After Anamika goes missing, the spotlight lands on everyone she knew. Outside of the Anands, The Fame Game’s ensemble includes three others — there’s the divorced bipolar star Manish Khanna (Manav Kaul) who has history with Anamika though they haven’t seen each other in 20 years at the start of the new Netflix series. And there’s an orphaned young man (Gagan Arora) who is obsessed with Anamika to an insane degree, stalking her whenever he gets a chance. Investigating them all is the ACP Shobha Trivedi (Rajshri Deshpande) who, at the beginning, dismisses the whole thing as “a bloody Bollywood case.” Coming on the back of two years where Bollywood stars and their progeny have been dragged through the mud to suit the national agenda, it feels weird. Why are Rao and Co. deliberately fuelling a bad-faith political witch-hunt?
More importantly though, The Fame Game fails as both a detective story and an ensemble piece. The early investigation scenes pale in comparison to the likes of Knives Out, with The Fame Game serving as stark proof of Rian Johnson and Daniel Craig operating on another plane. But the new Indian Netflix series doesn’t try to be Knives Out for too long. Trivedi comes and goes out of The Fame Game, with her personal life dealt with in minor forgettable vignettes, as if the rest of her scenes were excised on the edit table. It’s mostly about the lives of Anamika and those around her for the six months leading up to her disappearance — but it’s all over the place even though the family takes up most of the oxygen. Chiefly, they are boring, be it the husband, two kids, the mother, or the servant (Shubhangi Latkar).
But The Fame Game’s biggest crime is in thinking it is tackling something bigger. The Netflix series ruffles through major topics such as mental health, body image, domestic abuse, and fan and celebrity culture. (It’s also cute of Dharma to namecheck nepotism in its show.) Except it’s fooling no one — only itself. At the end of the day, these are merely propped-up reasons to spice up the mystery around Anamika’s disappearance. The Fame Game is no You’re the Worst, GLOW, or Big Little Lies. I’ve already noted my disappointment with the last of those — stardom — and The Fame Game even wilfully ignores how the industry works at times to suit its narrative. Rao doesn’t have anything meaningful to say, which is how we end up with fluffy jokes around the term “comeback vehicle”.
A bolder series would have the tongue-in-cheek audacity to take a dig at its star’s own “comeback” attempts. Dixit Nene, who left Bollywood at the turn of the century after her marriage, has been making sporadic but repeated attempts to re-enter the industry since 2007. Starting with the bland Aaja Nachle, then the excellent Dedh Ishqiya in 2014, and the high-profile misfire Kalank — also from Johar’s Dharma — in 2019. There have been more forgettable entries here and there, but they have been all movies.
The Fame Game is Dixit Nene’s first-ever episodic role — she was a guest star in one episode of the 1985 Doordarshan series Paying Guest — and it needed to be less tame. If Bollywood’s yesteryear veterans are going to usher themselves into what was supposed to be the new era of streaming filmmaking, then it needs to mean something more than this. It needs to strive for more than this. Because when all is said and done, The Fame Game is a variation on what Bollywood has served up a thousand times before.
I can’t say if she was consulted, but maybe Dixit Nene didn’t have the courage to be that open and self-referential. She’s playing it too safe here, possibly too concerned about her image that has been carefully crafted and managed over decades. If Dixit Nene believes any of this material is modern or challenging, then Bollywood stars really do live in a manufactured world of their own.
Because ultimately, The Fame Game is too glossy and artificial. It’s not enough to simply evoke nostalgia, pull those chords, put Dixit Nene in a variety of gorgeous flowing costumes — she and two other top-billed stars have their own special costume designer — and call it a day.
The new Indian Netflix series thinks it’s being raw and digging its nails into the dark side of stardom. But in reality, The Fame Game is too meek to tackle any of that. And by association, Dixit Nene seems too afraid to upend any part of her storied legacy.
The Fame Game released February 25 at 1:30pm IST on Netflix worldwide.