If you were a Hindi-movie buff in the mid-80s, you wouldn’t be at all surprised by a romantic scene featuring a pouting, heavily made up village belle named Nilofer and a city slicker called Vijay babu, with dialogue that went as follows:
Nilofer: Main Dilawar Khan ki harkaton se tang aa chuki hoon, Vijay babu. Isliye (holding up a large, ornate dagger) yeh khanjar hameshaa saath rakhti hoon. Kal usne meri chhoti behn Asha pe hamla kiya. Bechari masoom bachi ki izzat lootna chaha!
Vijay babu: Uss namak haram kutte ki yeh majaal! Main usse zinda nahin chhodunga, Nilofer. Main uska khoon pee jaoonga!
(Rough translation: Nilofer says the evil Dilawar Khan has been trying to rape her little sister. Vijay babu calls Dilawar Khan a doggie and vows to settle things by taking a sip of his blood.)
Fairly standard stuff, like I said. But you’d expect the actors performing this hokey little scene to be Jaya Prada and Jeetendra, or maybe Reena Roy and Shatrughan Sinha. You’d be very taken aback indeed if they turned out to be Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar (with the latter in desperate need of a crash course from Dharmendra on how not to seem introspective and professorial when proclaiming a desire to drink dog-blood).
But that's exactly what happens in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Khamosh, a film about a movie crew plagued by a series of murders during an outdoor shoot. Azmi and Palekar play themselves playing Nilofer and Vijay in the film within the film. Actually, scrap that, they don’t play “themselves” – they play actors who happen to be named “Shabana Azmi” (a three-time National Award winner, much as the real-life Shabana was when Khamosh was made) and “Amol Palekar”, much the same way as Soni Razdan plays an actress named Soni who gets bumped off early on (something that most certainly didn’t happen to the real-life Soni Razdan during the shooting of this film).
And yes, I know we’re firmly back in meta-film territory just a few weeks after this post. But there are also non-self-referential roles for such parallel-cinema heavyweights as Pankaj Kapoor and, “above all”, Naseeruddin Shah as the man investigating the case. And some nicely done stereotypes: the lustful Bollywood producer (played by Ajit Vachani), the overbearing mom (Sushma Seth) who wants her young daughter to become a star even if it means forcing her to do exploitative rape scenes.
I remember being terrified by Khamosh when I first saw it as a child (on a black-and-white TV, I think) - especially by the scenes involving Shabana’s sleepwalking, and the climactic revelation with the killer’s face dimly seen through a glass window. I don’t find it scary any more but it’s surprisingly entertaining still – tautly made (except for the final confrontation in the costume store-room, which goes on too long) and very well acted. Incidentally the co-writers include Sudhir Mishra (who also plays a small role), Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah; the film has the general sense of fun that one associates with their collaborations.
I'm now looking forward to seeing Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s diploma film Murder at Monkey Hill, which is available on DVD – but anyone who knows how to get hold of his first feature-length film Sazaye Maut, do share please. Haven't seen that anywhere.
P.S. here's a post about a Chopra film I didn't think too highly of.