Pushpak (Pushpaka Vimana, in English: The Love Chariot) is a 1987 Indian comedy written, directed, and co-produced by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao that is notable for being a “silent film”. Even though there are contextual and ambient sounds in the film, there is no spoken dialogue, and not even any textual intertitles to advance the narrative. To some extent one might compare the film to some of those minimal-dialogue classics by Jacques Tati, whose whimsical comedies relied mostly on silent gestures. However, since Pushpak’s story is about a penniless young man whose fortunes change when he runs into an inebriated millionaire, a more direct comparison, both thematically and stylistically, would be with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931).
Actually, if you can pull it off, a film without dialogue seems to make good sense in a country like India with its many different languages. But films like this that rely entirely on visual expression are nowadays a rarity, even in India. Singeetam’s Pushpak sets out to succeed on these terms by offering a visual mixture of romance, murder-plot hijinks, and slapstick comedy. Whether the film does indeed score in this effort may be a matter of taste, but we can say that it certainly has a very strong user rating on the Internet Movie Database (iMDB) [1,2].
At more than two hours in running time, the film’s story takes awhile to get going and proceed along its multiple narrative threads. We can consider the story to have four main acts.
1. The Young Man’s Situation
The first half hour presents the disheveled life of an unemployed young man. This modest, bespectacled Young Man (played by Kamal Hassan) seems civilized, but his penury is forcing him to squeeze even the last little bits out of his toothpaste tube. In the tenement building in which he lives, he has to compete with the unruly fellow tenants just to use one of the few common toilets, and this is shown via a slapstick scramble where he keeps missing out that is a direct homage to Chaplin.
There are also two peripheral characters introduced who appear here and there throughout the story.
- One is a street beggar towards whom the Young Man feels some patronizing sympathy. But the Young Man is soon humiliated to discover that the beggar has more money than he has.
- The other is a performing magician, whose public shows are assisted by his beautiful daughter, whom we will call, the “Girl” (played by Amala). The magician is an amusing diversion in the film, since he seems to have fascinatingly magical powers over mundane artifacts.
The Young Man first eyes the Girl in a furnishings store that he had wandered into. But his bumbling ways (more slapstick) cause him to break things in the store and force him to flee the premises.
2. The Rich Man
The so-far aimless story livens up when a tipsy Rich Man enters the picture. He checks into the posh Pushpak Hotel and immediately telephones home to his wife, who is too busy in bed having sex with the Rich Man’s Best Friend to answer the phone. So the Rich Man returns to his bottle. In the evening the Young Man encounters the Rich Man passed out drunk on the sidewalk. Seizing the opportunity, the Young Man carries the man to his own flat, gags and ties him up, and confiscates the man’s hotel room key. He then goes to the hotel room, grabs some cash that he finds there, and assumes the role of the Rich Man.
This whole section showing the Young Man force-feeding the tied-up Rich Man with alcohol to keep him insensate and attending to his excrement is evidently supposed to be funny, but I found it repellent. It is basically an extended exercise in toilet humor, and it doesn’t fit with the Young Man’s previously-shown timid and civilized demeanor.
3. The Hired Assassin
One-hour into the film a new plot element emerges in the form of an Assassin (Tinu Anand) hired by the Rich Man’s Best Friend to bump off the Rich Man in order to claim his wife and his money. But informed of only the Rich Man’s hotel room number, the Assassin mistakenly targets its current occupant, the Young Man. The sinister Assassin has a clever scheme for his murder weapon – using a knife formed from frozen water that will melt away after the murder is accomplished. But despite his supreme confidence, he seems to be a bumbling fool and fails at numerous attempts to stab the Young Man.
Meanwhile the Young Man, now living the high life at the Pushpak hotel, discovers that the magician and his daughter, the Girl, are also staying there and giving performances in the hotel’s lobby. In fact the rooms of the Young Man and the Girl are located in separate wings of the hotel so that their balconies are facing each other. This gives the two of them the opportunity to engage in flirtatious sign-language exchanges as they silently acknowledge their growing mutual attraction.
They later sneak out together on a date, with the Young Man trying to show off to the Girl by attempting to buy her expensive things with the Rich Man’s money. They even try to sneak in a kiss at the cinema, but of course it doesn’t quite happen.
4. Getting Straight
The Assassin eventually homes in on his mistaken target by sneaking into the hotel room, but again he blunders and almost electrocutes himself in the process. So he abandons his efforts, and the murder plot collapses. For his part, the Young Man discovers the sordid truth behind the murder intentions. He is further revulsed when he sees that the earlier-seen street beggar has died and the onlookers on the street are only interested in scrambling after the money hidden in the beggar’s clothing. The world, it seems to him, is consumed with avarice. So the Young Man decides to come clean and do things the right way. He reflects on the fact that the recently deceased owner of the luxurious Pushpak Hotel had worked his way up from humble beginnings, so why can’t he (the Young Man)? He goes back to his own flat and frees the still besotted Rich Man and leaves him a note confessing his sins. And he also passes another note to the Girl, confessing that he is not the rich playboy he had pretended to be but is just a poor nobody. He returns to being the schmoe he had been before.
In the end, everyone is taking their final leave from the Pushpak Hotel. The Rich Man and his wife seem to arrive at some sort of reconciliation. As the Girl is departing with her magician family, she sees the Young Man and indicates her forgiveness and her wish to see him again. But fate ultimately blocks that opportunity, and the Young Man is left only with a rose she had left him and his new resolve to work his way up the proper way.
Overall, Singeetam’s Pushpak is fascinating, but it’s something of a mixed bag. Some things work, and some things not so much. The production values are generally good, particularly the editing, which is, of course, crucial to the storytelling. In this regard I particularly liked a number of imaginative, but still natural, occasions when people – whether murder conspirators or romance seekers – were shown compelled by the social context to communicate via gestures. I also liked the amusing antics of the magician, whose physics-defying sleight-of-hand maneuvers were purely visual.
The musical background in the film is energetic and eclectic, and it often added to the emotional tone. There are also occasionally odd interstitial visuals of trains rushing down the tracks, which are apparently meant to signal narrative transitions.
But a more significant production facet was the acting. Tinu Anand’s goofy grimacing in the role of the Assassin goes too far in clownishness and reduces viewer involvement. More important is the role of the Young Man played by Kamal Hassan, and here Pushpak compares unfavorably to its comic precursor, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. In both films the lead character is often shy to speak, but Chaplin in his film still wears his heart on his sleeve. The viewer is emotionally engaged with Chaplin’s ups and downs all along the way. Kamal Hassan, though, is so introverted in Pushpak with respect to self-expression that the viewer doesn’t really much know what he is feeling, and this is a weakness.
Beyond those production values, though, there is the issue of Pushpak’s overall message. A number of people seem to see the film as primarily having a moralistic message: the Young Man decides in the end to play the game of life fairly . However, whatever moralistic theme the film’s producers may have intended is very much undermined by a couple of factors. When the Young Man imprisons the Rich Man in his flat, he subjects his victim to physical torture, and the only sustenance he provides is alcohol. These scenes are apparently supposed to be funny, but I found them merely making light of physical abuse and were painful to watch. The associated toilet humor was only a further detraction as far, as I was concerned, and greatly lessened my sympathies for the Young Man.
More satisfactory to me was the tentative romantic attraction between the Young Man and the Girl and how this was played out visually. Films offer a fundamental, multimedia way of expressing emotive experiences, and love is the most exquisite of such. It was on this plane that Pushpak’s silent gestures worked well.