Once Indian movies started talking and singing in 1931 with Alam Ara, they never stopped. So Singeetham Srinivasa Rao’s 1988 dialogue-less film Pushpak was an experiment in making a silent film in the talkie era, and making it work so that audiences do not miss speech and songs. Time to remember it now that another silent film, Mercury, releases this week.
Inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, the film is about a poor, unemployed man (Kamal Haasan), who lives in a crowded tenement and is unable to find a job. His luck changes when he comes across a rich alcoholic (Sameer Khakhar) whom he takes to his miserable room and ties up, while he assumes his identity and checks into the luxurious Hotel Pushpak. He feasts and shops with the millionaire’s money lying in the room.
The rich man’s wife (Ramya) is having an affair with his friend and they have hired an assassin (Tinnu Anand) to murder the husband. So Kamal is stalked by the killer, who has no details except the room number of the hotel where his target is supposedly staying. He has no idea of the switch carried out by Kamal Haasan. Tinnu Anand is hilarious as the inept hitman who plans to use an ice dagger to do the job, which is more a comic gag than a practical method of killing.
Meanwhile, Kamal and the hotel magician’s daughter (Amala) fall in love, which entails a lot of signaling across balconies, in keeping with the film’s ‘silent’ gimmick. She is not impressed by her suitor’s wealth, and for a gift she asks for a flower growing at a height. Later, when he confesses to her in a letter, she forgives him.
The film was a comedy-romance-thriller and morality tale about money not being able to buy happiness. It did not have a conventional walk-into-the-sunset ending, but the protagonist learns a lesson in honesty and hard work by the end.
Because the characters do not speak — unlike the old silent films, there were no dialogue cards — the film relied heavily on eloquent body language and slapstick. The actors got to test their skills; Kamal Haasan who has a mobile face anyway, managed easily, though got a bit over the top.
The film had no songs, but had an appropriate background score and imaginative sound effects. The director and cinematographer also conveyed emotions through interesting visual effects, and the editor kept the pace brisk.
The film did not even need subtitles to be released all over the country, though it did better in the South (titled Pushpak Vimana) than in Mumbai and the rest of India. Over the years it has acquired cult status, and when watched now, the audience can see the effort that has gone into the making of the film, which is why nobody attempted a silent film… till now.