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.

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.”

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).