Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s Pushpaka Vimana speaks volumes with its silence
The poster advertised Pushpaka Vimana as “a silent movie which speaks”. And it does – about morality, about the despair of the unemployed, and the randomness of life.
(Editor’s Note: This is Part 10 of a series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)
If there is a contemporary Indian artiste who can say a lot without saying a word, it is Kamal Haasan. There is no surprise then in learning that when writer-director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao decided to make a film without dialogues, he wanted Haasan as his leading man from the start. Pushpaka Vimana, starring Haasan and Amala (a relative newcomer at the time), released theatrically in 1987. It was not, as it is often described, a silent film: it had sound effects, it was simply dialogueless.
The poster advertised Pushpaka Vimana as “a silent movie which speaks”. And it does – about morality, about the despair of the unemployed, about how society values material goods over human beings, about faith in hard work, true love and the randomness of life, all underscored by charming actors and L. Vaidyanathan’s beautiful background score.
India’s first full-length talkie – Ardeshir Irani’s Hindustani language musical, Alam Ara – was released in 1931. HM Reddy’s Telugu venture, Bhakta Prahlada, and the Tamil film Kalidas, also by Reddy, followed the same year according to Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema. Over half a century later, Rao was struck by the idea of experimenting with silence after an experience while assisting Telugu film veteran KV Reddy that he described in an interview to Rediff’s Shobha Warrier:
…As he was narrating, the writer of the story said, ‘the hero and his comedian friend enter a cave, and the comedian says, dear friend, the cave is dark. I am scared’.
KV Reddy reacted sharply, ‘…in a visual medium...You should show the expressions of the actors that they are scared, and you should do it in the dark’.
The writer replied, ‘I know that sir. But I do not know what sort of a cameraman and what kind of actors you have. If the cameraman is not competent enough to take a frame in the dark, and if the actor cannot give proper expressions, at least my dialogue will convey the story!’ We all had a hearty laugh!
While conceding in the interview that “there are brilliant directors in India who have made use of visuals very well, like Satyajit Ray, Raj Kapoor and Shantaram”, Rao contended that since Indian cinema did not have many silent movies before talkies arrived, “even today, dialogue is more important than facial expression and visuals.”
He added: “Since that is so, I thought it would be a challenge to make a film without dialogues.”
American director Mel Brooks’ colour feature, Silent Movie (1976), and French director Michel Hazanavicius’ black-and-white The Artist (2011) were both made in the style of early silent films that used title cards between shots to convey dialogue just spoken by characters. Since Pushpaka Vimana’s characters are almost never shown speaking, there was no question of title cards. Rao wrote the story and screenplay in such a way that what needs to be said is communicated through expressive faces, hand gestures, follow-up deeds and other means, or circumstances are contrived in such a way as to stem speech. Such as in the case of a man being held captive who is gagged each time he tries to shout. Or the phone conversation attempted by the hero and heroine – the couple ultimately do not chat because her father takes the first call and in the second instance, her mother grabs the instrument from her. This scene, in fact, is the only one in the film in which we actually hear a character’s voice – the mother’s – but she is shown in long shot, her lines are unintelligible and all that can be discerned is that she is shouting.
Rao – whose filmography spans Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and other languages – is one of the most successful Indian filmmakers of all time. I was a teenager when I first watched Pushpaka Vimana, and was amazed at how much the director managed to put across without words. I had not, until then, been exposed to such a drastic experiment with form in cinema. The enduring appeal of this black comedy lies though in the fact that it did not rest entirely on its novelty. It actually told a story, with poignance and humour, through an unusual channel, which is why I have included it in this series of essays on Indian films that sparked the critic in me.
The characters in Pushpaka Vimana have no names. The story is centred around a youth identified in the credits simply as “Unemployed Graduate” (Haasan) who occupies a single room in a congested apartment block called Anand Bhavan. That the film is heavy on symbolism is heralded right from the start when we see pictures of Karl Marx, Sylvester Stallone and various glamorous figures on the wall of his room, which also houses a soft-porn magazine and his graduation photograph on which the cleaning lady chucks his slippers.
When Unemployed Graduate finds Rich Man (Samir Khakhar) passed out in a drunken state on a footpath with a room key of a posh hotel in his pocket, he abducts the fellow and takes up residence in his stead at the hotel, Pushpak. Magician (KS Ramesh) is performing at Pushpak at the time with Magician’s Daughter (Amala) occasionally joining him on stage. They too are staying at the hotel along with Magician’s Wife (Farida Jalal). The youngsters become romantically involved.
Unemployed Graduate makes elaborate arrangements for Rich Man’s toilet needs as he lies bound in the former’s minuscule quarters. In the film’s darkest portions, he also pours alcohol down his prisoner’s throat, possibly to keep him in a daze. He in turn becomes the target of Killer (Tinu Anand), a hit man with a dagger made of ice in a sub-plot involving Rich Man’s Wife (Ramya) and her Lover (Pratap Pothen).
Despite its veneer of humour, Pushpaka Vimana is a grim film and the hero’s actions deeply problematic. Despite its veneer of simplicity and minimalist approach to storytelling, Pushpaka Vimana has a lot going on in the narrative and a troupe of tiny but memorable characters operating on the sidelines. There is, for one, the Beggar who keeps a stash of cash hidden away from the public; Anand Bhavan’s dancerly, voluptuous cleaning lady; and the elderly male tenant who leers at her while in the background a radio newsreader announces that the Finance Minister said retired people’s “sense of vision and in-depth understanding” should inspire the youth.
In an India that tends to deify old people, it is unusual for a film to point out that senior citizens are flawed creatures like everyone else – and Pushpaka Vimana did that without going to another extreme and indulging in ageism.
In a scenario where commercial Indian cinema tended to romanticise poverty and pedestalise the poor back in the 1980s, Pushpaka Vimana did neither. The tone of Rao’s film does not condone Unemployed Graduate’s choices nor reward him for his amoral behaviour, even while deriving comedy from it.
When the hero wakes up to the pointlessness of wealth for wealth’s sake, he returns to his previous life. This is not to suggest that he is now satisfied with his straitened living conditions. On the other hand, the unexpected taste of wealth has not left him dissatisfied with his circumstances either. Instead, it is hinted that he is now willing to go through the grind in the hope of making a better life for himself.
The denouement is a reflection of Rao’s own worldview as he explained in a 2016 interview to Silverscreen India’s Aswathy Gopalakrishnan. When asked, “Is Pushpak a personal film?” he replied, “Yes. That’s the life I lead. I don’t want to amass wealth. At the same time, I am not a person who romanticises poverty. Money is important, but that is not everything.”
A caveat about fate is slipped into Pushpaka Vimana’s finale for good measure.
Pushpaka Vimana was a sleeper hit and went on to win the National Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment. It marked a continuation of a fruitful partnership between Rao and Haasan that, among other films, delivered the blockbusters Apoorva Sagotharargal (Tamil, 1989, dubbed into Hindi as Appu Raja) and Michael Madana Kama Rajan (Tamil, 1990).
The most frequent cinematic reference that comes up in discussions on Pushpaka Vimana is Charlie Chaplin, and in particular his silent romantic comedy City Lights (1931). This is natural since Chaplin’s films – telecast frequently on the state broadcaster, Doordarshan – were a rage in India in the 1980s, the decade in which Pushpaka Vimana was released, and are the only silent-era classics from Hollywood with a mass following in the country till date.
Besides, Haasan has paid tribute to Chaplin several times in his career. In an article in Hindustan Times he wrote that Pushpaka Vimana “was a lesson in the art of screenplay writing and the redundancy of dialogue. When Singeetam saab brought the subject to me, it was a tragic story. Together we watched Chaplin and decided it should be tragic-comic.”
The influence was stylistic in a very broad sense, and not literal at all. The storylines, for one, have only a tenuous connection. Because of Chaplin’s recall value and high entertainment quotient, it would have been safe for Haasan to mimic his exaggerated mannerisms and for Rao as a storyteller to try the English writer-director-producer-actor’s signature blend of tragedy with slapstick by which he is best known in India, to compensate for the absence of words in Pushpaka Vimana. Rather than be derivative and imitative though, they opted for under-statedness, and delivered a one-of-a-kind gem.
Even in scenes that would be categorised as scatological humour, Rao chose the power of suggestion over in-your-face crudeness. The result is two of the most hilarious yet not crass, well-acted episodes you could imagine over a package of human faeces. In one of these scenes alone, Haasan’s body movements might perhaps be described as a bow to Chaplin.
Pushpaka Vimana had different titles for different Indian regions: Pushpaka Vimana, Pushpak, Pesum Padam (Talking Picture), Pushpaka Vimanamu, Pushpakvimanam. Except for Pesum Padam, each of these has a Ramayan connect. Pushpaka Vimana is the air-borne chariot in which Ravan abducted Sita and took her to Lanka. The name of the film is open to multiple interpretations. It could be a reference to the flight of fantasy that caused Unemployed Graduate to assume he could get away with abducting Rich Man and impersonating him indefinitely at hotel Pushpak (with its logo of a circle bearing wings on either side). It could merely be an allusion to antiquity, in this case an era of cinema that ended with the advent of talking pictures.
Others have read other meanings into it. To me it is all the above but primarily a hat-tip to the flowers, pushp, that become the vehicle, viman, through which the lead couple’s love finds expression. The unspoken commentary in the film peaks on the two occasions when she gifts him flowers. To explain why would amount to a spoiler, which would be unfair since Pushpaka Vimana aka Pushpak aka Pesum Padam is worth watching even today as a lesson in how silence can speak volumes.
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