In a show filled with what-ifs, the most tantalising one is this: what if the actor Madhuri Dixit went missing, and what if her kidnapper was the painter MF Husain, who was famously obsessed with her?

The Netflix series The Fame Game stars Madhuri Dixit as a version of herself. Dixit plays movie star Anamika Anand, she of the box office hits and the dazzling dental work. Although Anamika is a fictional composite of several heroines, the show frequently erases the line between actor and character. Clips from Dixit’s songs are included in the narrative alongside subtle references to her real-life career graph.

Since The Fame Game is about showbiz, appearances are deceptive. Anamika vanishes one fine day, just like the mystery writer Agatha Christie did in the 1920s. Was Anamika abducted or did she walk out of her own volition?

The suspects within the family are Anamika’s debt-strapped husband Nikhil (Sanjay Kapoor), her controlling mother (Suhasini Mulay) and her troubled teenaged children Avi (Lakshvir Saran) and Amara (Muskkaan Jaferi).

Beyond Anamika’s mansion, the possible perpetrators include the obsessive fan Madhav (Gagan Arora) and Anamika’s former lover, the actor Manish (Manav Kaul).

Also on the list is the dishevelled painter Hari Lal (Makarand Deshpande) who specialises in hand-painted film posters – as did MF Husain during his formative years.

Manav Kaul, Madhuri Dixit and Sanjay Kapoor in The Fame Game. Courtesy Dharmatic Entertainment/Netflix.

The investigating police officer is unimpressed with Anamika’s resume. I don’t watch Bollywood films, declares Shobha (Rajshri Deshpande) with perverse pride. This inverted snob stands in for the choleric outsider who is suspicious about the moral fibre of actors and clueless about the inner workings of the Hindi film industry.

Show creator Sri Rao and directors Bejoy Nambiar and Karishma Kohli go some way towards dismantling these prejudice. As we learn more about Anamika’s professional struggles and the personalities of the people who surround her, Shobha has ample opportunity to reassess her opinions, as do viewers.

Shadows of previous insider accounts of the Hindi film world flit through the seven-episode series. Nikhil appears to be a direct descendant of Amol Paleker’s narrow-minded manager from Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika. Dependent on his wife for money and self-esteem, Nikhil walks the thin line between adoring and despising her.

Each of their children has a cross to bear. Amara wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but lacks the saleable beauty demanded by the movies. Avi has a secret that is expressed through temper tantrums.

Muskkaan Jaferi and Lakshvir Saran in The Fame Game. Courtesy Dharmatic Entertainment/Netflix.

Anamika, who conceals as much as she claims to reveal, is always hard to place. Madhuri Dixit has the plastic smile and the practised hand wave of the marquee icon down pat. Dixit is perfectly cast as a celebrity who is a slave to her image as well as an independent-minded woman who seeks a way out of her gilded cage.

Some of the other casting decisions similarly work in the show’s favour. Sanjay Kapoor does a fine job of balancing obnoxiousness and despair. Manav Kaul is nobody’s idea of a movie star but brings in enough performative heft to paper over the mismatch.

Other cast members bear the brunt of the twinning of a study of stardom with an uninvolving investigative thriller. Rajshri Deshpande’s police officer has some of the most meaningless scenes, in which she skulks about and scatters disdain like popcorn in a movie theatre.

The mystery of Anamika’s kidnapping becomes increasingly banal too. The present, in which we learn about Anamika’s fate, is always duller than the past, in which we get a peek behind the poise.

Always made up, even in her home, and with just the right amounts of self-awareness and blankness, Madhuri Dixit’s Anamika is the perfect red herring in an imperfect mystery. The Fame Game was originally called Finding Anamika, a better title for a show about a movie star who can perhaps never be found.

The Fame Game (2022).