Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Khamosh (1985)

A small film team under director Chandran (Sadavish Amrapurkar) has travelled to a supposedly picturesque part of the Indian countryside to film part of a highly exploitative drama. If you ignore the usual squabbles, the project runs as well as can be expected, until actress Soni Razdan (Soni Razdan, playing herself weirdly enough as murder victim) is murdered and found hanging from a tree.

The local police takes it for a suicide, and close the case without any investigation whatsoever, but fortunately (and very suddenly), a nameless C.I.D. inspector (Naseeruddin Shah, with a very agreeable moustache and doing more sunglasses acting than David Caruso) appears and proceeds to sniff around, convinced the actress' death was in fact murder.

He has quite a bit of work to do, because nearly everyone on set had some reason or other to wish Soni ill, except for the very upright heroine Shabana Azmi (as herself) and Soni's fiancee Amol Palekar (also as himself, but with a twist I'd like to see a Hollywood actor repeat). The film's producer Mister Dayal (Ajit Vachani) wanted to have a little casting couch romp with her, and only got a public slap in the face, extra Mrs. Bahal wanted Soni's next role for her daughter Meenu, the producer's brother Kuku (Pankaj Kapoor) is a junkie with a crush on Soni, the waiter Ghulam Hassan (Kamal Chopra) is a freeform creep, the director of photography wanted Soni to be "nicer" to him and the dialogue writer likes to put dead animals into the beds of people who displease him. It's possible that I forgot someone, but you get the gist.

Turns out that the Inspector has quite a secret himself - he isn't a cop at all but Soni's brother playing amateur detective. And an amateur detective or better two, if you include the very helpful Ms. Azmi, is really needed here, even moreso when more people start to end up dead.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Khamosh doesn't want to have much to do with the usual stylistic flourishes and techniques of mainstream Hindi cinema, so there's a decided lack of long, florid speeches, delectable singing and dancing or eye-popping colours.

That is not necessarily as bad a thing as you might think if you are going into the film expecting something more mainstream Bollywood. The potential viewer just needs to be able to keep her expectations in check and just go with the more Western style of filmmaking here. (And, as an aside, isn't it interesting that Indian films which are less commercially oriented look more conventional than their more colourful counterparts when seen from a Western perspective?)

Chopra's direction shows a strong influence of gritty semi-realist US and European 70s cinema, with all the dynamic camera work and brown tones this suggests, but he also finds time to add more than one moment of homage to Hitchcock to it, something that's certainly not to the film's detriment.

There's quite a bit of handheld camera work and just a lot more camera movement than I'm used to from pre-90s Hindi cinema, yet Chopra isn't overdoing it or just showing off, instead it looks to me as if he is trying very hard to distract the viewer from the lack of interesting sets or locations. For most of the time, the director is quite successful at this and it was only in the last third of the film that I started to dread the return of that damn rock by the water or of the house of repeated murder.

Chopra's direction is the film's strongest point. While the acting, especially the work of the always committed Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi, is solid throughout, it is also seldom more, thanks to a script that never truly does something interesting with the shedload of elements and characters it contains, as if it was enough to just put a bunch of people in front of the camera without constructing a narrative or a mood to connect them.

I also have my problems with a film that waddles its finger in a highly moralizing way at oh so exploitative filmmaking when it itself exploits every stupid cliche about movie people, politicians and servants it can get a hold of. The word "hypocritical" comes to mind, especially when the moralizing is connected with the overtly serious tone parts of the film affect, when it in truth is just a rather silly murder mystery. Additionally, I was a little disappointed that the film first sets up every possibility for interesting meta-commentary with actors playing themselves, but then doesn't make much use of it, as if the courage and inventiveness Chopra shows visually had been completely absent when he was writing the script.

I would have wished for either more depth or more playfulness here.

Now, this doesn't mean I wasn't entertained by Khamosh, I was just expecting something a little less cliched and a little more clever. As it stands, the film is still an agreeable little murder mystery, just not the sort of film anyone should go out of his or her way to see.


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