By Sneha Jaiswal (Twitter | Instagram) [Scroll to the bottom for an video version of the same review]

Just like its teaser, the 2022 Netflix series starts with dozens of paps clicking away pictures of top Bollywood actor Anamika (Madhuri Dixit), as she steps out of her car for a red-carpet event, dressed in a resplendent red dress, matched with a dazzling smile. A nostalgic tune on the sitar mixed with just a hint of mystery plays in the background, as Anamika talks about how she is blessed to have all her fame, along with a loving family. The same night she goes missing, and the police investigation unravels the secrets of a complex unhappy family drowning under the pressures of being under constant limelight.

So what’s happened with Anamika? Was she kidnapped? Murdered? Or did she run away on her own? Created by Sri Rao, it becomes apparent in the first few minutes that the series is going to heavily rely on Madhuri Dixit’s charisma to carry the story forward. The diva who is headlining a OTT series for the first time, doesn’t disappoint. However, as the show progresses, the younger stars who play her kids, equally shoulder the responsibility of keeping things interesting. Lakshvir Singh Saran and Muskaan Jaaferi play Madhuri’s children Avinash and Amara, delivering poignant performances. Their talent shines in some of their more intense emotional scenes, that are usually challenging for other young stars.

Sanjay Kapoor as Dixit’s onscreen husband is completely unlikable as the guy who gets to marry a superstar and blow her money, which is a compliment to Kapoor, because he plays the negative part with a rogue elaan. Suhasini Mulay as an emotionally abusive matriarch of the family, who practically forced her daughter into showbiz, gets some of the nastiest lines, which she delivers with deadpan aloofness. Manav Kaul as superstar Manish Khanna, felt like a weak link in the show, because even though he is a good actor, he just doesn’t seem convincing as one of the biggest stars in the industry. Anamaika and Manish Khanna are portrayed as a legendary onscreen couple, like a Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, the kind of pairing audience is willing to pay good money for, even 20 years later, but Kaul unfortunately doesn’t exude that big screen persona.

What Sri Rao does to keep things interesting is that he plants a lot of red-herrings throughout the story, basically, he peppers the plot-line with deceptive characters that will make viewers suspect them for Anamika’s disappearance. By the first half of the second-episode some viewers will be pretty sure who the culprit was going to be, but that didn’t turn out to be the answer. Which was good, because it would have made the show extremely predictable and disappointing. But ‘The Fame Game’ is a lot like a Agatha Christie mystery, where there are multiple suspects, but the setting is completely Bollywood themed, with some cliche characters, old-school sentiments and heavy dialogues. There was a ‘Darr’ (the 1993 SRK-Juhi Chawla thriller) like stalker sub-plot, which was creepy & cringe-y, on the lines of “I would rather fast-forward these bits”.

That’s not say that the story isn’t modern, instead it’s an awkward mix of tropes from the 1990s, along with some refreshing representation of present day problems and themes. For example, on one hand the makers show an out and proud gay cop leading the investigation into the actor’s disappearance, on the other hand you have a hetero cop spewing regressive lines like “if I were a man who lived off my wife’s earning, I would kill myself”. It’s as bad as implying women who live on their husband’s earnings should off themselves. And then there’s the who sub-plot about how a top super-star is nothing but a puppet in the hands of her manipulative mother & husband, both of who constantly gaslight her about her worth. It gets quite frustrating to watch at points, to see a supposedly famous successful woman slowly suffocating in her own house.

Overall, ‘The Fame Game’ is worth a one-time watch, especially if you are a Madhuri fan, you will probably fall in love with her again. Just like her character Anamika, Madhuri does light up the screen with her smile. Her performance falters a little is some scenes, especially the ones with her daughter scenes, they feel more like an inspirational coach speaking to a student than a woman to her child. It’s hard to decide if the actors lack a connection or if it’s the cold preachy dialogues, but going by Madhuri’s convincing performances in better written scenes, it’s probably the latter. Madhuri and Lakshvir Singh Saran make a great onscreen mother-son, you can feel the tenderness and concern in the moments where Anamika is trying to get her son to confide his problems.

The show is 8 episodes long and the climax is strongly foreshadowed in episode 7, which turns out to be a pretty good twist, but by the last episode, Sri Rao throws in another ‘last-minute’ kind of twist that changes tables again. And while I didn’t like the ending, because it wasn’t in sync with the characterization of a protagonist, it fits in with the title of the series – ‘The Fame Game’.

It’s a 7/10 from me.