Most Indian films are made by the rule book - 4 songs, 3 fights. There are just a handful of exceptions that skip the duets and do away with the stunts.
Post the silent era, not many Indian films without dialogues have been made. In fact, there has been just one that came out over 30 years ago, in the year 1987. Most times, we tend to go overboard with punch dialogues and gyaan-infused climax speeches, mostly delivered by the teary-eyed protagonist.
With Karthik Subbaraj’s silent thriller, Mercury, slated for release this Friday, we revisit Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s award-winning Pesum Padam that had no dialogues.
This dark comedy is a rare film for many reasons. For one, it had no dialogues, songs or fight sequences. And second, the film took upon an important social issue that was widely prevalent in the '80s - unemployment - and spun a satire around it.
Pesum Padam had a small set of characters played by Kamal Haasan, Amala, Tinnu Anand, Sameer Khakhar, TL Narayana, Farida Jalal, Prathap Pothen, Loknath and KS Ramesh.
The characters in Pesum Padam have no names. We only identify them by their characterisation - the unemployed youth, the rich drunkard, the beautiful girl-next-door, the witty beggar. This, perhaps, is the reason why the film strikes a deeper chord with the audience. Uproot these characters and place them in any other city, in any other part of the world, they’d still be relatable.
The film has a very simple and unsurprising story-line. A young man, hounded by poverty, finds an opportunity to live an opulent life. He takes it, finds love on the way, learns life’s most important lesson on money, and chooses to go back to his old life with a resolve to work hard and rise above.
One could draw parallels with Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper. Except that here, there are no lookalikes and the switch is not mutually agreed upon.
The film begins with the character played by Kamal. He lives in a small room on the terrace of an apartment complex that houses several families. The toilets are shared and the houses have little privacy.
There are posters advertising job vacancies pinned to a pole, lines outside the toilets (whoever thought of including adavu music here needs a special mention) and shirts are laundered only around the armpits before being worn again.
In one scene, when Kamal fills his tea glass with buttons and pins and a coin to make it rise up to the brim, we almost hope that he will offer it to the crow. But, obviously, we know who’s thirstier here.
The character list in Pesum Padam is quite remarkable. We’ve got the young domestic worker who harbours a secret crush on Kamal, the wheelchair-bound hotel owner who has humble beginnings, the magician father whose tricks are almost believable and the squandering drunkard with a constipation problem.
Then there’s the assassin who comes up with an ingenious weapon - a dagger made of ice. Sharp enough to kill, melts without a trace. Actually, why do they still use real knives to kill someone? And the best part is that he goes around with the ice-box in hand!
The scene where Kamal tries to sneak into the queue for a temporary job with limited vacancies and the one where the beggar outsmarts him with his secret stash of crumpled notes are achingly sad yet funny.
There are plenty of Chaplinesque sketches, especially when the killer trails him. Whoever came up with wrapping poop in huge gift boxes? Now why doesn't he flush them down the toilet like a normal person would? Remember shared toilets? The scene at the bus stand where the guy recognises Kamal and his ‘poop’ parcel is quite hilarious.
Old habits die hard. While in the first night in the hotel room, he literally sleeps next to money, he’s unable to do so the next. The initial rush has died down and the quietness of the place is so alien to him that he sneaks back to his room to record the sounds of street dogs and kung-fu fights being played loud on TV. Later, he even wakes up to turn the side of the cassette.
In every scene in which the telephone appears in the film, you almost expect the characters to speak. But these scenes are cleverly interrupted - calls are unanswered, the father picks up the call intended for his daughter or the rich man finds a note with an explanation.
People knock on doors, clap to call out for someone or nod and smile mostly. In the scene in which the confrontation between the assassin, his employer and his lover (the rich man’s wife) takes place, we’re shut outside along with Kamal and we only get to peek in through a (sound-proof) glass door.
Amala is quite brilliant in her role as the girl-next-door. There’s no head-over-heels love-at-first-sight here. The two hit it off very gradually, it is by chance that Kamal finds himself at the hotel where Amala is staying with her family. The scene where the two are seen watching a film together is the only place where dialogues are heard - through the film.
The scene in which people rush and fight each other to pick up the notes on the road, while the beggar’s lifeless body is ignored for the moment, is a sharp wake-up call for Kamal. He understands that money is temperamental.
The short-lived romance between him and Amala, too, withers away like a summer love. The first time she gives him a flower, he chooses to catch the flying notes (money) that slip from his hand but the second time, ironically, he picks up the flower and misses her note (letter).
His brief period of luck drifts away with Amala and in the end, Kamal goes back to standing in lines outside buildings with vacancy boards. Nothing has changed, except that now, he’s willing to take the metaphorical stairs to succeed in life.
The satire is admirable and at the end of the film, we’re left with a warm feeling for its characters and plenty of nostalgia. 1987/1988 was also the time when Kamal worked on films like Nayagan and Satya, the latter a drama on unemployment.
Pesum Padam released in Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi under different names. The background score by L Vaithiyanathan fills the silences and complements the film perfectly. In 1987, it won Filmfare Award South for Best Film and in 1988 the National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment. The film also premiered at the International Film Festival of India and 1988 Cannes Film Festival in the International Critics' Week.
The Kamal-Singeetam combination has given us plenty of great films including Raja Parvai, Apoorva Sagodharargal and the hilarious Michael Madhana Kamarajan. Pesum Padam is undoubtedly the silent jewel in the crown.