on the actor's trail

The film ‘Pushpaka Vimana’ is the one time Kamal Haasan said a lot without saying anything at all

The actor delivered one of his most subtle performances in Singeetam Srinavasa Rao’s dialogue-free comedy.

An important element of Kamal Haasan’s repertoire is his mastery over various accents and languages, which complements his ability to play just about any character – even George W Bush in Dasavathaaram (with the help of prosthetics).

On screen, Haasan has spoken Tamil in a variety of regional accents, rattled off English lines in Tamil films and even starred in films in Hindi in during the 1980s and 1990s.

As the celebrated actor and filmmaker celebrates his 63rd birthday on November 7, it’s worth recalling that one of his most celebrated movies is the one in which he says nothing at all. Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s brilliant Pushpaka Vimana, released in Tamil as Pesum Padam and in Hindi as Pushpak, is not strictly a silent film, as the director pointed out. “It is a dialogue-free film, since all the background sounds are there – there are songs coming from the radio, for instance,” Rao said. The movie doesn’t have any songs of its own but includes a lovely background score by L Vaidyanathan.

Haasan plays an unemployed young man who lives in a single room in a lodge, survives on biscuits and tea, and washes the armpit bits of his one good shirt when he goes for job interviews. The unnamed hero stumbles upon an alcoholic businessman (Sameer Khakhar) who has passed out by the side of the road with his hotel room key sticking out of his pocket. Our hero kidnaps the businessman and takes his place at the luxurious Pushpak hotel, where he pursues the lovely daughter (Amala) of the resident magician.

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Pushpaka Vimana (1987).

Major portions of the film were shot in Bengaluru, with the Windsor Manor standing in for the hotel that the hero makes his temporary home. “The location is a character and a part of the film, since it is a tale of two cities – one a very poor area and the other a modern five-star hotel,” Rao said. “Windsor Manor had the pillars, verandas and a royal touch. Its look was very good and we liked it very much.”

The hotel’s management was initially reluctant to let out the establishment for a shoot, but was convinced after the producer, Kannada actor Shringar Nagraj, made a convincing pitch that “the entire world will know about this hotel after the film”, Rao revealed. Most of the cast and crew stayed at Windsor Manor during production. “In my entire career, this was my most comfortable shoot,” Rao said.

The other key location in the film, Hotel Highrise, is the place that Haasan’s character abandons for five-star comfort. Other Bengaluru landmarks include an overbridge near Windsor Manor where Haasan’s character regularly meets a beggar who turns out to have more money than him.

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Pushpaka Vimana (1987).

Haasan was the best choice for the role, said Rao, who has worked with the actor in the comedies Apoorva Sagodharagal (1989), Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990), Magalir Mattum (1994) and Mumbai Xpress (2005). Since Pushpaka Vimana is free of the torrent of words that beleaguers so many films, its actors are allowed to focus on their expressions and body language. Haasan delivers one of his most perfectly pitched performances, bereft of mawkishness or unearned emotion, especially as the consequences of his actions catch up with his character.

Haasan is superbly backed by Amala, who got a role that Rao said was originally intended for Madhuri Dixit. “I saw her compering an awards function – she was angelic and looked like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, and her name was Amala,” Rao recalled.

Since the movie is without dialogue, Rao was free to cast actors from outside the Tamil film industry . Apart from Sameer Khakhar, Hindi film actor and director Tinnu Anand hilariously plays a contract killer who has been hired to murder the businessman by his philandering wife’s lover. For the role of Amala’s father, Rao ambitiously wanted to cast the legendary Bengali magician PC Sorcar, but instead settled for the actor KS Ramesh, whom he had seen in a television show. “Ramesh was actually young at the time, but I made him look old,” Rao said. “For the role of Amala’s mother, we cast Farida Jalal, who happened to be in Bengaluru at the time.”

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Pushpaka Vimana (1987).

Pushpaka Vimana was a huge hit at the box office. “In Bengaluru alone, it ran for 25 weeks,” Rao said. “I met Mr Satyajit Ray in Calcutta, and he told me he wanted to see the film. He called me later and congratulated me and said, you have created a love scene around a dead body.” In the sequence, the Pushpak hotel founder has died, and the characters played by Haasan and Amala walk around his body several times just to spend some time together.

Another irreverent highlight is the delicate question of the businessman’s toilet habits, which Haasan’s character addresses through an enema bag and a nozzle. Pushpaka Vimana soars above the potentially stomach-churning moments, never missing the chance to create a memorable visual gag without a single line being spoken.

Kamal Haasan in Pushpaka Vimana (1987).
Kamal Haasan in Pushpaka Vimana (1987).
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.