Who else but Madhuri Dixit could have played an enduring movie star of the kind who is at the centre of The Fame Game is? Her presence at the head of the cast of the Netflix series not only generates clearly identifiable meta elements within a purely fictional narrative but also ensures that the game, despite many a wobble along the way, never loses its allure.
It is hardly surprising that it takes the lead actress little effort to get into the skin of the protagonist, veteran Bollywood luminary Anamika Anand. She does so with such dazzling panache that the line separating the character from the performer is frequently breached to produce a spellbinding spectacle filled as much with grand sweeps of fancy as with little sparkles of insight.
The eight-episode series, created and written by New York-based Sri Rao, directed by Bejoy Nambiar and Karishma Kohli and produced by Dharmatic Entertainment, tells the story of an achiever who shines bright on the outside but cannot escape the ravages of time.
Anamika Anand is neither like Sunset Boulevard’s obsessed-with-a-last-hurrah Norma Desmond nor an echo of the ever-youthful eponymous heroine of Fedora. She is a woman who, on the face of it, is at peace with her “perfect life” complete with a family, two children, a glorious movie career and a massive fan following.
Partly on account of the writing and principally because of Madhuri Dixit, The Fame Game chugs along smoothly for the most part, piecing together the story of a woman of substance countenancing much that belies the surface serenity of her existence.
The Fame Game kicks off with a mishap and then goes back half a year to trace the developments leading to a flashpoint that defines the series and continually leaps between past and present in the process.
After returning home from a glitzy awards ceremony accompanied by her husband Nikhil More (Sanjay Kapoor), Anamika Anand goes missing. She leaves no clues. The entire family, which includes her daughter Amara (Muskkaan Jaferi), son Avinash (Lakshvir Singh Saran) and mother (Suhasini Mulay), is subjected to questioning by ACP Shobha Trivedi (Rajshri Deshpande).
The police officer, who has thorny personal issues of her own to deal with in a male-dominated force, claims that she does not watch movies. As the investigation progresses, Shobha, under great pressure to find the actress quickly and startlingly blunt with her questions, not only develops a keen interest in Anamika’s chequered life, but also becomes an empathetic interpreter of the choices the super-successful lady has had to make to get to the top and stay there.
The film goes back and forth as Shobha unearths little-known facts of Anamika Anand and her family and her career while individual characters recall the personal encounters that they have had with her over the past six months.
The cop moves from the task of finding ‘where’ the lost actress is to trying to figure out ‘who’ she was. As Shobha wends her way through her findings about Anamika’s ties with her husband, mother and children, her personal and professional relationship with one-time co-star Manish Khanna (Manav Kaul) and the sudden emergence of an obsessive young fan Madhav (Gagan Arora).
Like Shobha, Anamika is a woman in a man’s world and palpably proud of the fact that she has been around for 30 years while many of her male contemporaries have faded away. Someone suggests that a film being produced by her husband and reuniting her with Manish Khanna after a gap of two decades is going to be her comeback, she retorts: “I didn’t know I was coming back from somewhere.” So, we dare not treat The Fame Game as Madhuri Dixit’s return. She, like the character that she plays in the series, never ever went away.
The meta-fiction is kept alive in the form of a real-life movie song (Jora jori chane ke khet mein) here or a scene from a Bollywood production (Kalank featuring Madhuri and Sanjay Dutt) there. The sporadic references to an actual celebrated film acting career do not, however, get in the way of the imagined tale of a woman negotiating the challenges of sustaining a career through thick and thin.
It is only someone as supremely successful as Anamika Anand who can, while delivering a pep talk to her only daughter who wants to follow in her footsteps, afford to say that fame is not glamour, fame is dangerous. Her life has been eventful both under the spotlight and away from it, but behind the façade of affluence and happiness is a story riddled with difficult phases and painful realities.
Her warts and wounds are hidden from the public with the help of a well-oiled publicity machine, which begins to come unstuck once she disappears and is exposed to relentless media and police scrutiny. The Fame Game emphasises the intangible nature of stardom through the device of Anamika Anand’s physical absence amid preparations for the release of a new film, the making of which is the entry point to an important facet of her story.
Her life is a tale of strife, suppression and forced choices for which she blames her mother. History appears to repeat itself when Anamika faces a similar allegation from her daughter, who feels stifled in her shadow. The Fame Game touches upon mental health issues (ranging from depression and bipolar disorder to negative body image), the subject of nepotism and star kids (well, well!), misgivings about one’s sexual orientation, and the ever-relevant theme of loneliness.
The Fame Game definitely has its moments, especially when it examines the wages and transience of movie stardom and the price that a celeb has to pay for staying in the public eye while negotiating the challenge of keeping her family together. “Main toh ghayab hona chahti hoon,” Anamika tells an interviewer when asked what fame and success mean to her.
With Madhuri Dixit in such fettle, and receiving solid support from Manav Kaul, Suhasini Mulay and Rajshri Deshpande, the writers of the show are at times hard-pressed to keep pace with the controlled power of the performances. But since it is constantly pushed by the high quality of the acting, The Fame Game stays buoyant and strikes more than a chord or two.
The younger actors in the cast – Muskkaan Jaferi, Lakshvir Singh Saran and Gagan Arora – hold their own in a script that gives them to room to develop their characters. Manav Kaul delivers a performance that blends restraint and coiled force. Playing a woman who is an outsider to the world The Fame Game is set in, Rajshri Deshpande strikes it rich and lends a hard edge to the narrative. And above all, the incandescence of Madhuri Dixit. Dive right in.