Vasan Bala’s Monica, O My Darling sent everyone on a spot-the-reference treasure hunt but a rare warm moment in the film is in its bibliographic hat tip—the who’s who of Bala’s likely favourites on an apartment nameboard. It’s warm because one of those names is not like the others. The Indian names make up a certain kind of genre film-makers—Sriram Raghavan, Vishal Bhardwaj, Abbas Mastan. Almost all the names roll off the tongue for even the casual watcher but the very first name might have eluded either the younger population or those not soaked in south Indian cinema. Singeetam Srinivasa Rao.
Everybody recognises at least one film from the director—probably 1989’s Apoorva Sagodharargal (Appu Raja in Hindi). Rao is a living legend and just six years younger than the oldest apartment owner on the board—Guru Dutt. He has done and seen it all, from assisting K.V. Reddy in his major works, including Mayabazar (1957), to films with Rajkumar and Kamal Haasan, from mythologies and comedies to science fiction films.
He does share a trait with the other film-makers on the list: There is something either dark or skewed in the humour of many of Rao’s films. One of his tragicomedies counts as another experiment—Pushpaka Vimana, in Kannada, or Pushpak in Hindi (and Pesum Padam in Tamil), a no-dialogue film that released 35 years to this day. It starred Kamal Haasan, Amala Akkineni, Tinnu Anand, Farida Jalal, K.S. Ramesh, Sameer Khakhar and Pratap Pothen. A film without dialogue was an opportunity to showcase the diversity of Indian film industries—actors from the four southern states as well as Hindi cinema rubbed shoulders with untrained non-actors. No producer was willing to bankroll the film till Shringar Nagaraj, more of a dilettante when it came to cinema, agreed to do it for Rao.
It was an idea that had stayed with Rao for a long time, and something he shared with Haasan during their earlier collaboration, Raja Paarvai (1981). He didn’t have a script then but the actor was interested.
It’s about an unemployed graduate living in penury, who, frustrated with his job search and lack of prospects, chances upon an opportunity to live in an upscale hotel by switching places with an affluent but wayward alcoholic. In the process, he discovers love, money and the fleeting and inadequate dividends of both. The name of the hotel in the film is Pushpak, originally the Windsor Manor in Bengaluru.
It was the late 1980s, unemployment was high through the decade under Indira Gandhi and in the years after her assassination. The tiny room that houses Haasan’s character has a Karl Marx poster on the wall. Bleaker moments in the young man’s life are given a comic tinge. When quizzed on these sociopolitical subtexts, Rao shoots straight, “I did not arrive at the screenplay by analysis or critical judgement.” For him, they land after the fact.
The script came to Rao from an amalgam of inspiration and personal experience. He cited Nikolai Gogol’s play, The Inspector General, in which a classy-looking civil servant is mistaken for an inspector by a town and its corrupt officials. “What if some ordinary person deliberately manages to fool others into believing that he is the inspector general?” Rao wondered. He referred to the loose film adaptation, The Inspector General (1949), starring Danny Kaye.
The other ingredient was Rao’s own life in the 1950s, when he was moonlighting as an assistant director with dreams of becoming a film-maker and working in the postal audit department on what is today Ethiraj Salai in Chennai. A short walk from that office stood Connemara, later Taj Connemara and today Vivanta by Taj. Rao recalls that a day’s rate then was ₹1,200 for a room. As a joke, Rao and 11 other friends would contribute a hundred every month for one of them to spend a lavish day in the hotel.
Pushpak is one of several films in which Haasan brings the inner Tramp fanboy to the foreground. It’s a series of slapsticks and gentle rhythms, underscored by the minimalist harmonies of a veena and a violin by L. Vaidyanathan, several versions of the theme scored to match the cadence of the scene. Pushpak offers both comedic pleasures, the tragedy of unemployment and the shock of heartbreak. Silent comedy gels with scatological humour. Faeces wrapped in a gift box? Why not. Haasan is famed for the use of props and in a dialogue-less film, everything from earrings, a car, an ice dagger, a cool box and telephones become weapons wielded by actors. The actors are set free in large enough navigable spaces to extend the narrative of a scene or mirrors are used to block them in smaller areas, giving us an idea of who is looking at whom. Haasan adopts an ungainly gait when he’s wearing unlaundered clothes for a job search and a cautiously confident one when he’s wearing the rich man’s kurtas, formal suits and sunglasses.
Desire is the vital concept of the film. For a job, for money and the good life. And for the fashionable city girl played by Amala, whom Haasan’s character encounters in an antique store. There is a lot of City Lights (1931) in Pushpak, with the alcoholic kidnapped and Haasan and Amala Akkineni’s characters gradually falling for each other with an exchange of compliments, gestures and facial expressions. The first date is all about making merry at a memorial service, a few extra rounds to pay their respects to the departed soul lying flat in the middle.
In some ironic sense, according to Rao, the main challenge while filming Pushpak was the loss of the discipline of silence on film sets. He goes back to the days of Mayabazar and Mitchell Camera, with on-spot recording in studios before the era of dubbing. Red and green lights would signal the take and a call for silence. Once the take was done, it was green, and people could move around. “We wanted to shoot the whole film with Mitchell Camera on location. Since there were no dialogues, natural silence became a significant part of the film. But nobody would remain silent during or between takes. That was the main challenge,” says Rao.
Amala Akkineni was all too delighted to be approached for the film. She says she had no idea what was in store for her but she was excited. She insists Pushpak remains her film school. “I learnt so much about acting and the film-making process from Mr Rao, Kamal Haasan and cinematographer B.C. Gowrishankar,” she remembers. Her career was nascent but in just under two years she was everywhere, with more than 10 films to her name. Until that point, she feels, she had done only mainstream films.
Rao disagrees. To him, Pushpak makes for a smooth commercial film. It has Kamal Haasan, artists from every major Indian film industry and can be released across the world as there is no language barrier—how can it get more popular than this? he asks.
For Amala, it was the film-making process that was different, not necessarily the film itself. “It was a very artistic approach, nothing like what was demanded of me until that point. I was used to people telling me that I have three scenes, five songs and a climax fight. My dates would be positioned like that.” In Pushpak, it was a more democratic undertaking. It involved getting everyone’s opinion on the costumes, shopping for them as a unit on the streets of Bengaluru, practising magic to play the assistant to the magician—K.S. Ramesh, who plays her father in the film—and rehearsing every movement for a shot. In terms of acting itself, she was most comfortable in Pushpak. Her experience as a trained classical dancer too came in handy.
Rao claims he was blissfully unaware of what was going on in the careers of his actors. “My film was my film; I wanted the producer to make his money back. I did not involve myself in what others were doing. And because this was a film without dialogues, it was just me, the editing and re-recording after the shoot,” says Rao. He left the release strategies to producers and distributors.
He is, in fact, a necessary reality check in today’s age of star film clashes and release date woes. Back then, several big stars and film-makers shared release dates on a regular basis. Haasan was doing Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan around the same time and Amala had her Telugu debut, Kirayi Dada, with Nagarjuna and Vedham Pudhithu with director Bharathiraja, followed by Mani Ratnam’s Agni Natchathiram soon after.
Thirty-five years ago, it was a Friday like any other. Maybe they didn’t grasp the gravity of what they were trying to accomplish, maybe some did, but it was business as usual for every actor filming several projects simultaneously. They just happened to release together and we are talking about it because it revolves around Kamal Haasan, believes Rao.
Nayakan and Pushpak released within a month of each other and marked the beginning of a remarkable run for Haasan. After his first production, Raaja Paarvai, bombed, Haasan went through a phase when he did many films that Amala alludes to as mainstream films. Rao calls them formula films. But the October-November double bill of Nayakan and Pushpak changed everything.
Almost two decades of testing the limits of mainstream cinema ensued—from comedies like Apoorva Sagodharargal and Michael Madana Kama Rajan (with Rao) to dramas like Mahanadhi, Gunaa and Thevar Magan, a screenplay masterclass, accompanied by ghost direction of films that ended with directorial flourishes in Hey Ram and Virumaandi. The era did not start with a bang but with silence.
Aditya Shrikrishna is a freelance writer and film critic from Chennai.