Revisiting Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s ‘Pushpak’ – India’s first full length silent masterpiece

Switching identities, a murder attempt and a love story – weaving all these story elements together with a bevy of colourful characters is no mean feat, especially if you are planning to do a silent film and that too in a country like India, where people have gotten too used to talkies that the prospect of watching a film devoid of a single dialogue, songs, dances or item numbers wouldn’t sound so appealing to a casual moviegoer. Yet, director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao did just that in 1987 when he made Pushpaka Vimana (aka Pushpak), India’s first full-length silent feature.

It has all the ingredients that make a perfect entertainer – comedy, drama, romance, suspense etc., and also carried a nice message. The film wouldn’t have been the same without the inspired casting of Kamal Hassan, one of (if not the) India’s greatest acting thespians. His impeccable comic timing, body language and mannerisms play a big part in propelling the narrative forward. Kamal plays a frustrated and unemployed young man who one day stumbles upon a fat and rich businessman lying drunk in the gutter and decides to switch places with him.

Kamal Hassan in Pushpak
Kamal Hassan in Pushpak

Upon learning that the drunken man stays in a luxurious five-star hotel called “Pushpak”, he uses his key to get into his room and lavishly makes use of his money, clothes and everything else there that he could find. At the hotel, he crosses paths with a young girl (played by Amala) whom he had seen earlier in an antique shop. The girl’s father is a performing magician with whom she works as an assistant. Meanwhile, the rich man’s brother hires a contract killer to eliminate him. The funny thing is that the killer only has the number of his hotel room and not his photograph.

The comical villain
Tinnu Anand as the comical villain

What follows is a string of comical situations in which the killer tries – and fails – to kill the “rich man” with his special dagger which is made out of ice (a “knificle”?). No murder weapon, no evidence. Clever, right? Meanwhile, a sweet and tender romance ensues between the “rich man” and the magician’s daughter. In one ingeniously staged sequence, Singeetam sets up a cute romantic moment between the two in the midst of a funeral which surprisingly turns out to be a darkly humorous one owing to the couple and the “mourners” present who behave as if they are auditioning for a part in a movie.

Kamal Hassan and Amala
Kamal Hassan and Amala

Singeetam’s masterstroke is evident in some other aspects too. The Tamil title of the film is Peshum Padam (the film that talks) and the young man’s shabby residence is located next to a movie theater that screens talkies! Kind of ironic, wouldn’t you say? There is a bit of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and above all the French filmmaker Jacques Tati whose films are what Pushpak immediately reminded me of. While Tati possessed a near deadpan expression, Kamal takes it one step further by emoting well and convincingly with both his facial expressions and gestures. L.Vaidyanathan’s music aptly informs the tone of each situation.

Doing the film in silent provided Singeetam the impetus to cast actors from other languages too. Tinnu Anand plays the killer, Farida Jalal played the girl’s mother and Prathap Pothen plays the rich man’s brother. Many producers were initially reluctant to do the film and the one man who finally came forward had no prior experience in film production. Surprisingly, the film was a huge box office hit, won a National Award and had the honor of being screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Singeetam would go on to make two other memorable classics – Apoorva Sagodharangal and Michael Madana Kama Rajan – both starring Kamal and both talkies.

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