Millennial Review: ‘Pushpak’ Speaks Volumes, Without Any Dialogue
“You have to review a movie”
“Excellent. Looking forward”
“You can only look. It’s a silent film”
That’s roughly the sequence of events which led to this review of Pushpak, a movie released in 1987 – half a decade before I was born, and three decades before I eventually saw it.
The movie’s Tamil version is called Pushpaka Vimana. I tried guessing the need for a multi-lingual release for a film which has practically zero dialogues. And while turning down the volume of the latest debate on prime-time TV, I also tried to guess the need for a silent film at all. “The nation wants to know,” the anchor echoed.
Pushpak stars Kamal Haasan, Amala and Tinnu Anand in the lead. Growing up, I have seen Kamal Haasan and Tinnu Anand in different movies, hence it was refreshing to see them in their younger avatars. However, this was my introduction to Amala.
The movie’s basic plot is about an unemployed youngster (Kamal Haasan) who lands himself an opportunity to exchange lives with a rich businessman (Sameer Kakkar). His life changes for the better, and he finds love too in a magician’s daughter (Amala). But his life is also now under threat by a hired killer (Tinnu Anand), who’s looking for the rich businessman actually. How all this plays out is where the fun lies.
The Visual Language
I am now almost used to an item-song opening a film. So, the first 15-20 minutes of Pushpak will unsettle you, because there are no dialogues, no voiceover. Once you cross that threshold, you rarely miss any verbal communication. It’s all visual, and each second of the frame speaks. The silence is never awkward. It’s in fact, beautifully underscored by L Vaidyanathan’s background music.
The movie starts in a crowded ‘chawl’ where apparently single, working-class or unemployed youths live. This is emphasized when a maid goes around sweeping the floor, the male gaze follows her. When she reaches Kamal Haasan’s room – built on the terrace, hence cinematographically distanced from other rooms and people – the place is littered with magazines having photographs of semi-nude women. The entire place is established like a den of these lonely men, or basically every Indian street ever.
There’s another interesting piece of design in the movie. In various scenes, there are different posters pasted on the wall. In Kamal Haasan’s room in the chawl, there’s a Karl Marx poster. Later, in this same room, the rich businessman is kept after being kidnapped.
When Kamal Haasan sees that his cup of tea is half empty (because he's broke) while others are drinking a mug of the same, he quickly puts a few miscellaneous buttons and keys until the tea rises to fill the cup till the brim. Just like the thirsty crow, he manages to quench this thirst - of social and material equality though. At this point, while he cherishes the moment of his triumph, a Rambo poster is seen in the background. You are a true 90s kid if you know who's Rambo without Googling it!
In the film, ‘Pushpak’ is the name of the luxury hotel, which Kamal Haasan is shown aspiring to enter. The hotel’s logo is a circle with wings on both sides, symbolising the flight of dreams and the higher place it commands. After Kamal Haasan assumes the identity of the drunk rich man, he’s seen through the logo of the ‘Pushpak’ hotel. It’s almost as if he’s grown pseudo-wings now, and he can fly to the places he dreamt of. Such symbolism. Much wow.
In the latter part of Pushpak, there’s a scene where Kamal Haasan faces the dilemma of choosing between the rich lifestyle and the love of his life. In one hand Haasan holds a few of flowers which Amala has given him, and in the other hand he has the cash he found in his room. He mistakenly drops both of them, and while he’s busy gathering the cash, the flowers get crushed under his shoe. This is where his priorities are reinforced, and this also shows how even flowers get demonetised.
A Class Apart
Pushpak shows a deep contrast between the rich and the poor, littered with dark humour.
A roadside beggar, with whom Haasan used to compare himself for an ego boost, dies in the latter part of the movie (What? I had to say ‘Spoiler Alert’? I thought we are all Game of Thrones fans here. Consider this a leak). As the beggar is taken away by municipality workers, his clothes come undone, and all his money tumbles out. Everybody, including the municipality workers, rush to collect the cash. The dead body lies in a corner, neglected like the terms and conditions of that important form you filled.
While Kamal Haasan was a middle-class man, struggling for a job, he wouldn’t be entertained in shops and is chased out. But his fortunes change when he takes the place of a rich man. The gatekeepers salute him. Amala is shown to notice Haasan while complimenting him on his luxury car, his hotel suite, and other material possessions. So, Haasan starts enjoying it even more, because why not!
Pushpak makes a strong comment on the sham of a leading a life that's driven by material needs. In the end, Haasan is shown to have realised the value of hard work, and honesty. He goes back to his old clothes, and old shack, and stands in the same old line looking for a job once again. But he’s holding a flower this time.
Here’s a Shoutout
I thoroughly enjoyed Pushpak – the first silent film I have seen – and it speaks volume about what a masterpiece it is, because it continues to entertain, without a single dialogue, cutting across geographies, time periods, and genres.
This silent classic shall always reverberate with me.