Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Pushpak, then and now

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.

25 comments:

  1. "it has a small but very loyal following"

    Count me in. You're braver than I am though - I wouldn't dare rewatch it now because I'm sure I wouldn't be able to forgive the slapstick-ness of the whole thing. Still I loved it when I first saw it and laughed myself silly.

    Oh, and presumably you mean "layers of symbolism" not laters.

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  2. I think I remember parts of it, well the enema parts... think I saw it years ago with my dad... it involved a very large gift wrapped box and a dog, and at one point a pigeon crapping into the enema basin too I believe?

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  3. Falstaff: thanks, have changed it.

    Renovatio: yes, that pigeon bit was one of the low points of the film - though funny in a crude sort of way. The scene gave the impression that even the birds were enjoying Kamal Haasan's predicament.

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  5. I remember having to choose between Tezaab and Pushpak at that time,and I chose to watch Pushpak. Tinnu Anand's character was by far one of the funniest characters I have seen.

    PS:So when do you land in 'amchi' Mumbai? :-) I will be attending the Kitab fest on saturday.

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  6. Sublime Thoughts: yes, Tinnu Anand ruled, though a couple of his scenes were way over the top. Loved the concentration on his face though, and the way he dedicatedly set the thermos down and started opening it every time Kamal Haasan walked by.

    Reaching Mumbai on Friday morning, should be at the fest all three days. See you!

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  7. keeping so-called commercial interests in mind - as in not keeping things too subtle, what with the absence of dialogue and more importantly song and dance... I havent watched Pushpak in years but like you say, the vignettes stay on - the scene where the beggar dies - the film is one nice big moral but very simply told..

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  8. I meant to say - the 'slapstickness' was perhaps keeping commerciaul interests blah blah - blogger swallowed a line

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  9. Nice post!

    >>"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."

    Indeed! The way it pulls off an amazing ode to silent cinema in such an unforced fashion is amazing.
    This is brilliant screenwriting (I wish you had mentioned Singeetam Srinivasa Rao in your post), right from the moment you see the backside of a "talkies". The choices the film makes to achieve this are worth mentioning. The film choose to keep the natural sounds because of which it stays true to its times. And, the scenarios are weaved in a fashion in which the audience doesn't feel the absence of dialogue at all. The audience is "manipulated" into this. Characters communicate secretively, beckon at each other from long distances, and then, there's almost an in-joke of sorts (which is probably when one can overtly see the cleverness of the film) when Prathap Pothen and Tinnu Anand strike a deal in a "furtively professional" manner without talking a word waving their ties.

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  10. Pardon the multiple amazings and the lack of obeisance to grammar in general in the above comment.

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  11. I actually managed to watch Pushpak again a couple of years ago. I still liked it, though my nostalgic memories said it was an amazing movie. What I really still like about the movie is the pace....it never feels forced.

    And yes....it definitely has a cult-following.

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  12. So that's where Takeshi Kitano got his style from...
    But seriously, I laughed my ass off when I first saw Pushpak a few years ago. Love the kung-fu theater sleeping scene.

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  13. i dunno how I wud react if I watch it again today.
    I think i would like to preserve my nostalgic picture of it.

    I also remember the scene where the maid-servant comes to clean, where Kamal Hasaan tries to pick the flower for Amla(yaa, yaa thatz my mushy self) and of course the last scene where he loses the paper which Amla leaves for him.

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  14. I've watched it often in the recent past. Vijay TV keeps showing it every couple of months or so. I can keep watching it.

    The film shows a brilliant usage of props and non-verbal communication - both of which Kamal has always excelled at!

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  15. nice! very nice!

    reaqding ur post was like revisiting the movie :)

    count me in the fans! absolutely loved it!

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  16. Its one my Fv films.brilliant script.Kamal haasan was great.Its a cult film for sure the other one being ' jaane bhi do yaaron'.

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  17. A great movie. Do you remember the lecherous chawl tenant - the one who tries to peer down the cleavage of the bai who come to sweep?

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  18. So strange... I never really liked this film. I remember everyone recommending it at home, (the whole "silent" angle of the film that was supposed to be the highlight) but once I got down to watching it I thought it was so bad. The gift wrapping part, even that bit when there's a dead body and the girl's father (he was a magician, I think) suddenly bringing out a rose or something...it was quite terrible...

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  19. "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."

    If there was no demand for writers that were full of crap, you'd be on the streets. Don't you forget that, you shithead.

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  20. thanks for reminding me of this film but i agree with falstaff here, i do not have the courage (patience actually) to sit through the movie now. besides some films such as this one are relegated to happy childhood memories. like shehensha, not a film anywhere in this league but a film that i watched umpteen times growing up and never would now.

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  21. Interesting coincidence. I emailed you and discovered your blog yesterday and I happened to have had borrowed Pushpak's dvd which I saw today. I have always wanted to watch it but was too lazy to do so for the last 19 years or so :)

    So as 30+ yr oldie seeing the movie for the first time I was disappointed. The utter lack of dialogues seems like a gimmick, the movie is tackily made and the background score intrudes into the 'narrative'. It does have its moments though and I liked the fact that despite being an Indian movie, made way back in 1987, the hero doesn't get the girl in the end. Also I had forgotten how cute looking amala is, so the movie does have some plus points. :)

    Incidently saw another "gimmicky" movie today 'conversation(s) with other women'. It uses a split screen format throughout the narrative. Quite a nicely made movie.

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  22. Great post, J. I watched it today with my 12 year old son who sat down a tad skeptically (silent movie? how can that be?) and yes, it is a bit dated now and there are some slow, dragging scenes that could do with editing - but it was still a very funny and a very moving story. My son, who has grown up with slick movies of this milennium was captivated by both the slapstick and the morality tale.

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  23. Sadhana: that's nice to know. I'm always a bit defensive about films I liked as a child - about whether they would seem too old-fashioned or boring to today's kids.

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  24. "20-year-olds with no writing or editing skills can be assured of heavy pay-cheques."

    Where is this exactly?

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