I have a surprisingly vivid memory of watching the Kamal Haasan-starrer Pushpak in the Uphaar cinema hall sometime in 1988. Surprising because most of my other movie-watching experiences from that time are a blur. On revisiting old childhood favourites, I often find that a scene which I was certain was in one film actually came from another – this happens even with movies I thought I knew by heart.
With Pushpak, it's been different. It was a very striking film, full of vignettes that stuck in the mind: over the years, whenever I’ve thought about it, I’ve been able to recall specific scenes with clarity. Even as an 11-year-old, I knew it was special – and not just because of its unique selling point, much-advertised at the time, which was that it was a silent movie (silent in the sense of no dialogue between the principals; there were plenty of background sounds).
It was interesting to watch it again on TV after nearly 20 years. Books and films change as we return to them at different points in our lives (this is one reason why I don’t take reviews too seriously from the point of view of evaluation, preferring to see them as a form of self-expression) and the gap between an 11-year-old viewer and a 30-year-old viewer is especially wide. The Pushpak I saw a couple of days ago was clumsier and more disjointed than the one I watched as a child. Some of the slapstick bits (which had provided great belly-laughs all those years ago) were embarrassing, though a couple of the comedy scenes held up well. There were minor missteps when it came to specifics: the faces of some peripheral characters weren’t as I remembered them, and I was startled to discover that the small but significant role of a roadside beggar was not, as I had thought all these years, played by a young Nana Patekar. But on the whole the film was as I had remembered it.
This is a modern-day morality tale with one easy-to-digest lesson that seems slightly out of place in middle-class India today: if you want the good life, be prepared to work hard for many years. Start at the bottom and move slowly, very slowly to the top. (There were no call centres back then. Nor – insert personal rant here – was Indian journalism in the ridiculous state it is in today, where new magazines and papers are being launched on a weekly basis and demand so outstrips supply that 20-year-olds with no writing or editing skills can be assured of heavy pay-cheques.)
The “shortcuts don’t work” theme runs through the film, but it’s encapsulated in a scene where an old, wheelchair-bound hotelier gazes at a series of photographs that trace his progress over the decades – from a humble tea-seller with a little stall to the manager of a small restaurant to the proud owner of a luxury hotel called Pushpak. This hotel (named for the chariot commandeered by the Hindu God of wealth, Kubera) is an imposing symbol of achievement and status, which makes it an apt setting for most of the film’s action. It’s here that a down-on-his-luck youngster (played by Kamal Haasan; we never learn the character’s name), frustrated by his life in a dirty chawl, the endless waits in employment queues and a long line of “No Vacancy” signs, unexpectedly gets a free ticket to the Good Life. Circumstances allow him to assume a rich man’s identity and take his place in a room at the hotel, where he quickly settles into five-star luxury and falls in love with a magician’s daughter (Amala). But he also has to abase himself considerably (there’s a scene involving the rich man’s enema – not what you’d call tasteful humour, but it serves its purpose in showing us the lengths to which the Haasan character has to go in order to live his dream) and further trouble comes in the form of a bumbling hitman (Tinnu Anand), hired to dispose of the man our hero is impersonating.
Pushpak has layers of symbolism – most of its characters can be seen either in aspirational or cautionery terms vis-à-vis their relationship with the “hero” – but this doesn’t affect the film’s charm or lightness of touch. There are many fine sight gags, made more effective by the absence of dialogue: Haasan’s little game of one-upmanship with the beggar, who turns out to have lots of money concealed under his blanket; his tape-recording of the chawl sounds, without which he can’t sleep at night, even in the comfortable hotel room; the magician’s bag of tricks, including those he uses in his own household; and best of all, the hitman’s paranoid insistence on using ice-daggers instead of a more palpable, difficult-to-dispose weapon – which sets up some delightfully silly scenes where he has to lug a thermos around with him everywhere and look for a place to set it down each time his prey is within sight.
The slapstick is complemented by some nicely understated moments, especially in the relationship between the Haasan and Amala characters. As he’s often done throughout his career, Haasan uses his intelligence as an actor to bring integrity and purpose to scenes that might otherwise not have worked. Best of all, the film is so artless, so unforced, that one never thinks of the lack of sound as a gimmick. If anything, it suits this story – it’s a parable anyway, and an over-earnest scriptwriter might easily have ruined it.
P.S. Puskpak is a cult film in the truest sense. It was a critical success when it was released but was never very widely watched, at least outside of south India. It hasn’t yet been “rediscovered” – and tellingly, there’s very little about it on the Internet – but from conversations with friends I know it has a small but very loyal following.