Although made in 1987, Pushpak is a silent film with no dialogue. However there is background noise and a very funky soundtrack. Presumably inspired by the early silent films from the start of the last century, director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao has included plenty of situational and physical comedy but Pushpak manages to be a compelling, if somewhat moralistic drama at the same time.

The story centres on an unemployed graduate played by Kamal Hassan. He lives in a one-roomed apartment on the roof of his building, and spends his days wandering around the streets unsuccessfully looking for work. By chance, he comes across an alcoholic millionaire (Sameer Khakhar) lying at the side of the road and recognises him from an earlier encounter near the Hotel Pushpak.

Kamal Hassan decides to kidnap the unfortunate millionaire and carries him back to his meagre apartment where he restrains and gags the unconscious man (although he does thoughtfully turn on the fan), and then heads off to Hotel Pushpak where he assumes the millionaires identity. He sleeps in the millionaire’s room, eats his food and uses his cash to buy smart new clothes. Kamal Hassan is perfect in his indecision as he tries bread sticks, then some nuts and finally cannot decide which chocolate bar to eat – too much choice for someone who has been used to no choice at all. And I love the way they serve breakfast in the hotel.

Clever shots of photographs in both the hotel room and the millionaire’s home allow us to identify the millionaire’s wife, to whom he appears devoted and the millionaire’s best friend, who appears to be devoted to the millionaire’s wife. The two are having an affair and we learn that the best friend has hired an assassin to get rid of the husband for good.

The role of the assassin is played by Tinnu Anand who throws himself into the role and seems to have a great time stalking his target. However as he has only the hotel name and room number, he clearly doesn’t know that he is attempting to kill the wrong man. His weapon of choice is a throwing dagger made of ice which he carries around in an ice bucket (of course!). His efforts to remove the lid of the ice bucket, pull the ice dagger from the mould and then throw and hit his target are wonderfully inept leaving me wondering why he didn’t just bring one of his large collection of guns along as a back-up plan. The daggers also seem rather friable although they work well enough in the dummy he has brought along to the hotel room in order to practice his technique.

Added in to all this farce, there is a rather sweet romance which develops between Kamal Hassan and the hotel magician’s daughter, beautifully played by Amala. The film builds to a moralistic but somewhat poignant ending where everyone appears to have learned that money cannot buy everything and that there is more to life than wealth.

Of necessity the acting in a silent film has to be more obvious when there is no dialogue to explain the reasons behind people’s actions. However the various characters here are explained by a few simple scenes which give a clear understanding of their personality and there isn’t really any heavy-handed overacting by the lead actors. As with many of the early silent films there is a high reliance on slap-stick humour and most of this involves the efforts by Kamal Hassan to keep his prisoner quietly hidden and the assassin’s attempts on Kamal Hassan’s life. There is a lot of toilet humour as Kamal Hassan goes to rather detailed lengths to make sure his prisoner is relatively comfortable throughout his captivity and there is perhaps a little too much detail for it to be really funny. Rather, I was impressed by the ingenuity shown in the ‘waste disposal’ plan, although perhaps this is to be expected in a college graduate.

Where the film works best is in the small details. For example the large sign on top of the adjacent cinema which reads ‘Talkies’, and Kamal Hassan flexing his muscles with a Rambo poster in the background above. One of the standout moments in the film is the intricate choreography enacted as a number of building residents vie for the bathrooms in the morning.  

The opening scenes of the film give a snapshot view into the lives of the various residents of the building and also show the type of man Kamal Hassan is. He is not averse to spying on his neighbour as she fixes her sari, carefully washes only the underarms of the shirt he means to wear that day and tries to skip ahead in the employment lines. All these little traits allow us to build up the impression of a man who, when tempted, would possibly be amoral enough to kidnap a man and take over his life.

I also like that frequently there is a reason for there to be no dialogue as part of the storyline and this makes it easy to forget that it’s a silent film. The magician’s daughter and Kamal Hassan communicate by gestures across rooms and from balconies on opposite sides of the hotel as well as when she is onstage with her father, while the millionaire is both drunk and incoherent or gagged.

The film looks fantastic and the contrast between the two social worlds is reflected in the different lighting between the rooming house and the hotel. The hotel décor is lavish and there is plenty of attention to detail throughout. I kept wondering if the Windsor Manor Hotel in Bangalore where this was filmed still has all those huge lift lobbies and chandeliers as it looks amazing.

The hotel logo of a circle and wings recurs a number of times, and I agree with other opinions that it is meant to represent dreams and wishes. When an ice-cream is dropped on the ground, it’s Kamal Hassan’s shadow that we see reaching out for the treat, and again it’s fallen right in the middle of the shadow of the hotel symbol. I think that his inner feelings are very well represented in this way.

Much is also made of the death of a beggar, who actually has much more money than the unemployed Kamal Hassan, but whose corpse is unceremoniously dumped at the side of the road when his stash is revealed and everyone fights to get a share. This is also contrasted with the death of the hotel owner who has a parade of people who come to mourn him, but their grief isn’t all genuine either. Just in case Kamal Hassan was slow to get the message about money not buying happiness, Amala turns down his offers of clothes and household white goods (yes really!) when he takes her shopping, and asks for a wild flower growing on a ruined building instead.

Kamal Hassan is excellent in his portrayal of the unemployed and perpetually unsuccessful graduate, as he manages to express so much very simply without words. His economies with toothpaste and washing powder initially made me a little more sympathetic towards his character and although his treatment of the millionaire was terrible, it was all made a little more believable by the amount of detail shown in the scenes where he was looking after his prisoner.  Amala was beautiful as the magician’s daughter, although as usual for a Tamil heroine, she didn’t really have much to do. She was the moral compass for Kamal Hassan and as such played her role perfectly. Both Tinnu Anand and K. S Ramesh as the magician looked to be having the time of their lives in their roles and I suspect they spent a lot of their time laughing about what they were actually getting to do on-screen.

I do have a few small issues with the film even though overall I think it’s an entertaining watch.  The story is really quite simplistic and without dialogue it occasionally feels like a collection of very good ‘moments’ all strung together with some unnecessarily long repetitive comedic scenes. These don’t really add anything to the story or to my understanding of the characters and tend to just be irritating instead. The long scene where Kamal Hasan dresses up as a hotel employee to give the magician’s daughter some earrings could very easily have been skipped for example. In contrast the inept assassin and the magician scenes are funny and well handled. I also think that keeping someone tied up and insensible with alcohol does seem very extreme and it’s very unlikely that the millionaire would just go home without contacting the police. Especially in this instance where he had evidence that the whole experience wasn’t just an alcohol induced dream. And really while money may not buy you happiness, it certainly can buy comfort which is not to be sneezed at – the overly moral tone in parts was a little overbearing. But there are so many good things about this film that I can ignore these little irritations and just appreciate the acting skills that bring this silent movie to vibrant life. It’s an interesting and quite unusual film and I think that Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and Kamal Hassan deserve praise for attempting something so very different and managing to pull it off in such style. 4 stars.