The spirits are high even though the bar is low in Kaun Banegi Shikharwati, Zee5’s first web series offering for the year. It’s the latest ode to smart casting, featuring a bunch of reputable actors who sportingly chew the scenery and goof around for 10 lengthy episodes.
Naseeruddin Shah! Raghubir Yadav! Lara Dutta! Kritika Kamra! Cyrus Sahukar! And! And! Holding out the promise of a rip-roaring farce but frequently under-delivering, the comedy series ambles along on the strength of its cast and some clever writing.
Mrityunjay (Naseeruddin Shah) is the eccentric and bankrupt ex-royal of the Rajasthani town Shikharwati. He’s grandly called “King” by his loyal manager Mishra (Raghubir Yadav), but is in danger of being booted out of his beloved palace. Mishra schemes to bring back Mrityunjay’s four daughters, who have fled the palace after their mother’s death, by cooking up a story of Mrityunjay’s imminent demise.
The women have fallen out with their father and each other. Devyani (Lara Dutta) is a perfectionist businesswoman who is married to Harsh (Cyrus Sahukar) and has two sons. Gayatri (Soha Ali Khan) is a spiritual-minded dancer who has two adopted children. Kamini (Kritika Kamra) is a fashion-forward and flitty social media influencer. The youngest, Uma (Anya Singh), is a coder with asthma and stage fright.
Mrityunjay doesn’t make it easy for his squabbling brood. Shikharwati is yours if you crack a nine-step obstacle course, he tells them. Even as the grown-up women submit to childish games that include cooking and stand-up comedy, the prince Roop (Varun Thakur) turns up in search of supposedly hidden treasure.
It’s not quite The Hunger Games or even Squid Game (although the heiresses do turn up in matching green tracksuits at one point). The goal is to deliver generalised buffoonery and wicked digs at self-important royals along with schlocky family bonding moments.
The series has been written by Ananya Banerjee and co-directed by her and Gauravv Chawla (POW: Bandi Yuddh Ke, Bazaar). The makers pack into a flabby and often wandering narrative several individual scenes of agreeable silliness, starting with Mrityunjay’s vast collection of nightwear. With fewer episodes and a more ruthless approach to narrative pacing, Kaun Banegi Shikharwati could have been a win-win instead of a job half done.
The performances that stand out are the ones that match the show’s twinkly-eyed tone. Naseeruddin Shah, sometimes resembling the pompous tax collector from Mirch Masala, and Raghubir Yadav, as his resourceful factotum, know just how to lob their considerable acting talent at unfocused material. These outstanding veterans have a precision to their goofing that makes their scenes together and apart seem even funnier than they actually are.
They are ably aided by Lara Dutta, who is doing just fine as a comedienne, and Kritika Kamra, who gets her character’s ditziness just right. Kamini’s journey of self-discovery leads her in the direction of the royalist local Veer Singh (Anurag Sinha).
More than the sisters rediscovering their love for each other, it’s Gayatri’s frighteningly precocious daughter Padma (Alisha Khare) who is Shikharwati’s Most Valued Player. Deadly serious and given to making grandiose statements, Padma is the series’s single-most inspired character.