Netflix Indian originals haven’t acquired quite the global limelight as the streamer’s other phenomenal Asian content like Squid Game, K-Dramas, and Love Is Blind: Japan. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paying attention. Besides being home to several Bollywood hits, the streaming platform has steadily released its own Indian movies and shows since launching in 2018. Admittedly, not all of its offerings deserve hype. But two relatively recent thrillers, Aranyak and The Fame Game, certainly do. Plenty of others were excited about the shows, too: Their trailers racked up over 17 million views.
Both captivating Hindi-language suspense dramas are led by prominent Bollywood stars. Aranyak’s Raveena Tandon and The Fame Game’s Madhuri Dixit Nene both rose to fame in the ’90s, and each have at least 75 movies under their belts. So, yes, they’re categorically consummate performers. As leads of their respective shows, Tandon and Dixit Nene flex their skills by tackling the kind of complex, nuanced characters they haven’t played on the big screen in a long while.
Aranyak, which dropped last December, is an atmospheric murder mystery in the vein of Mare Of Easttown or Broadchurch. In it, police chief Kasturi Dogra (Tandon) is on the verge of retirement in the small mountain town of Sironah when a young French tourist goes missing. She teams up with her rigid incoming replacement Angad Malik (Parambrata Chatterjee) to solve the case, which ties into a haunting local legend about an animalistic killer that’s plagued local residents for years.
In eight hour-long episodes, Aranyak’s wicked twists tie floating narratives together, including multiple deaths, local politics, and even the cops’ private relationships—all against the backdrop of a lush, scenic town. Like the best of its ilk, the show’s suspense has a gripping payoff (and setup for season two). But it also succeeds because of how Tandon grounds Kasturi’s fierceness as a cop and a mother with calm, calculated amenability.
Meanwhile, The Fame Game, which debuted late last month, feels more on par with a version of Bollywood that Western media is generally acquainted with. Because let’s face it: Indian movies continue to be stereotyped by lavish costumes and song-and-dance sequences (even Marvel’s Eternals fell prey to this with Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo) or overlong runtimes (um, The Batman and Dune would like a word). The Fame Game sort of features these elements—its central tension drags on for a little longer than needed—but offers a unique perspective into the industry. (Oh, and if “pulling back the curtain on Bollywood” is a desired theme, Zoya Akhtar’s 2009 film Luck By Chance is another fantastic option.)
The Fame Game follows the investigation into actor Anamika Anand’s (Dixit Nene) sudden disappearance, which sparks huge public outcry. The police scrutiny into Anamika’s life untangles a complicated (often too complicated) familial web. The story flashes back to six months before she vanished to fill in the blanks of how the crime might’ve occurred, and that back-and-forth between timelines adds to the brimming tension.
While the show veers toward heightened drama at points, Dixit Nene centers the spectacle with a commanding performance. The actor has always illuminated the screen, but here she’s equal parts unnerving and charming while transforming Anamika into one of her most pivotal characters to date. (For evidence, see a crucial moment between Anamika and her closeted teenage son, the show’s best scene.)
Tandon and Dixit Nene join a bandwagon of mainstream Indian stars now shifting from film to TV, a trend that’s already a norm in the U.S. In fact, Netflix’s first major 2018 Indian series, the gritty two-season long Sacred Games starring Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, set the stage for how Bollywood—a decades-old, billion-dollar film industry—has adapted to new-age streaming.
Sacred Games also ushered in an avalanche of TV thrillers. Seriously, the genre eclipses the rest when it comes to Indian original content, no matter the platform. Prime Video’s Paatal Lok and Mirzapur, and Disney+ Hotstar’s Special Ops and Aarya make for quality addictive viewing.
Netflix has dropped over 50 such originals of varying genres, but Aranyak and The Fame Game are riveting entries into the genre (along with 2019’s Delhi Crime, which won the International Emmy for Outstanding Drama). These shows catapult audiences into a fresh way of consuming Bollywood content, a way that doesn’t inhabit but breaks pre-conceived notions. And if the language seems like a problem, feel free to press play on Bong Joon-ho’s Oscars speech about overcoming the one-inch barrier of subtitles once again.