Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar - playing themselves - are at an idyllic mountain resort with a film crew, shooting a thriller. When their co-star Soni Razdan (also playing herself) turns up dead, the crew and the local police assume it is a suicide. Then a taciturn CID inspector (Naseeruddin Shah) turns up and begins his own investigation. He is convinced that Soni's death was no suicide, and as he learns of the secrets and feuds that seethe among the cast and crew, his eye shifts from suspect to suspect - the producer Dayal (Ajit Vachhani), publicly humiliated by Soni; the mother of a young starlet competing with Soni for a part in Dayal's next film; Dayal's drug-addled brother Kuku (Pankaj Kapur), desperately in love with Soni, and others. As the body count grows and the red herrings proliferate, it quickly becomes apparent that few of this rag-tag bunch are who they appear to be.
The plot is a straight-up murder mystery, quite Agatha Christie in feel, since it features a tense group, confined to close quarters, criss-crossed by passions and rivalries. What makes Khamosh different from other exemplars of the whodunit genre is that it is stuffed with in-jokes, references, and homages. It pokes fun at slapdashery in Bollywood filmmaking, when the director spontaneously decides to rewrite the script and orders the dialogue-writer to produce new scenes for the actors to shoot the next day. Vidhu Vinod Chopra pokes fun at himself with a running joke of the director repeatedly saying, "This is just a thriller! Wait until my next film!" And the actors poke fun at themselves as well - the Shabana Azmi of Khamosh, for example, sleepwalks, reads stories about herself in the gossip rags, and declares that she "can't understand politics." Khamosh also acknowledges its debt to the films that went before it; one standout scene pays explicit homage to the shower scene in Psycho with a reference to The Godfather for good measure.
Having the actors Shabana, Amol Palekar, and Soni Razdan play themselves - rather than playing fictitious movie stars with made-up names - was a stroke of absolute genius that added a self-referential layer to the film, lifting beyond the realm of cute, entertaining murder mystery. The film operates on several layers at once, playing with the viewer's sense of movie-reality and suspension of disbelief. I am accustomed to seeing Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi together on screen, but here there is a strange and pleasant disconnect; he is in character, and addresses her as "Shabana ji." The loopiness also alters the viewer's expectations about what can happen to the characters and what they can do. It's difficult to explain the full scope of this effect on my experience of the film without giving away too many of the plot details! But it was very enjoyable.
The sleuth at the center of the story, Naseeruddin Shah's Bakhshi, was entertainingly fallible - far from the flawless master of deduction, he jumped to conclusions and acted rashly as frequently as he showed investigative insight. And the story itself was sufficiently twisty and surprising to sustain the suspense. My friend Amit points out that Khamosh suffers from a few plot holes. To a certain extent, I think he's right - it rare that a script with complex twists can stand up to detailed scrutiny. But I barely noticed these small weaknesses on first viewing, because I was just having too much fun enjoying the ride. It may be "just a thriller," but it's a solid, suspenseful, and thoroughly entertaining film.