A project produced primarily because of the demands of the pandemic more than any real desire to tell a story, Kaun Banegi Shikharwati is an aggressively tiresome show that routinely undermines its serious themes with unending silliness.
God knows what possessed talented actors such as Naseeruddin Shah, Raghubir Yadav, Lara Dutta, Soha Ali Khan and the very promising Anya Singh to sign on, but you can’t shake off the feeling that each of them is wasted despite being given significant screen time. Like countless other Indian streaming projects, Kaun Banegi Shikharwati also makes the mistake of valuing plot over characters.
When an elderly maharaja (played gamely by Shah) is targeted for tax evasion, he concocts a harebrained scheme with the assistance of his right hand man (Yadav) to reunite his four estranged daughters. The plan? To put them through a series of desi Squid Games and hand over the family palace to the winner. Having seen all 10 episodes, I’m still not quite sure if the maharaja’s scheme, at least initially, was to actually wash his hands off his troubles with the law by transferring them to one of his own flesh and blood. If so, how selfish of him.
But nevertheless, he sends his right hand man, Mishra ji, to round up the four women anyway. More than fully fleshed-out characters, the daughters are essentially a set of walking, talking character traits. The eldest, Devyani, is a ruthless corporate type; Gayatri, the second oldest, is a neurotic dancer who doesn’t seem to have reconciled her privilege; Kamini is a vapid social media influencer; and Uma, the youngest, is an asthmatic game developer.
Conveniently, each of them discover a sudden motivation to answer their father’s call when Mishra ji arrives with the summons. Devyani has debts to repay, Gayatri has children to provide for, Kamini has a reputation to rebuild, and Uma has funding to raise. Their motivations, while crafted purely to propel the plot, are apparently as selfish as their dad’s.
There is a genuinely emotional story about estrangement and grief buried deep, deep under the staggeringly stupid surface of the show. But on the handful of occasions that Kaun Banegi Shukharwati strikes gold, it recoils in shock and scurries away in the opposite direction, as if it has made a mistake.
Far too often, Kaun Banegi Shikharwati relies on convenient new developments to further the narrative. It is almost as if the characters are in service of the plot—pawns that can be pushed in whichever direction that best suits the story—instead of the other way around. For instance, when Devyani has second thoughts about participating in her father’s games, her husband chooses that exact moment to tell her that they are broke. She’ll have to go back.
The games, if you’re curious to know, are exactly that. Instead of properly following through with his plan and testing his daughters on whether they have traits befitting a leader, he puts them through round after round of competition in cooking, chess, table tennis, and stand-up comedy.
Later, in another game, he confiscates stuff that is important to his daughters and has them fight to reclaim it—it’s like when Bigg Boss steals contestants’ makeup only to see them flail about in desperation. So while the influencer Kritika has her precious phone taken away, the show comes dangerously close to actually turning into Squid Games when it takes away the asthmatic Uma’s inhalers and forces her to deliver jokes to get them back. Hang on, wasn’t this supposed to be a fight for the palace? Why are lives suddenly at stake?
Dutta said in an interview that they were aiming for the whimsy of Wes Anderson with this show, but this is a classic example of someone studying Anderson’s work and learning all the wrong lessons. There’s more to his films than a peculiar visual style and quirky characters. That being said, Dutta is fairly restrained in her performance, which isn’t something that can be said for Kritika Kamra, who takes her thinly written character Kamini and somehow makes her an even bigger airhead. Shah, in proper Chamatkar mode, is the only one who is able to perform a balancing act between the ridiculous and the relatable. Kaun Banegi Shikharwati uses him like a lifeline, more than three times for sure, but still ends up getting the answer wrong. Afsos.
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