As I've mentioned before, I've not been married very long compared to many of my acquaintance--almost eleven years--but I have learned a thing or two about marriage over the course of the past decade. A woman enters into marriage with a certain set of ideals about what the relationship will entail and what her husband will be and do for her. Maybe she wants him to be confident, and charming. Certainly she wants him to fall instantly in love with her, captivated by her charms with a glance. And definitely she wants him to welcome, even want, a daughter, even though daughters are considered of little value in her world's eyes. In a society where husbands and wives often didn't have much of a conversation until after the wedding, these dreams would have little chance to be dispelled before the actual commitment took place and would be likely to experience a quick wrench of reality shortly thereafter.
But what would happen if a husband abandoned his wife in service to his father, leaving her only with her dreams for company? It's a strong possibility that her fantasy man would become more real to her than her actual husband. And if the real man repents his callousness and returns...what then? Paheli (Hindi for Riddle) the 2005 movie starring Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherji, explores the tug-of-war between dreams and reality in a marriage and comes to some interesting conclusions.
Lachchi (Rani) is an eager young bride. Sure, she had hoped to marry someone who lived near her own family so she wouldn't have to move far away. And sure, she doesn't know much about her husband Kishen (SRK) even though it's her wedding day. But in long-ago India neither of these conditions are all that unusual. She's ready to love, and possesses an open, giving spirit. Lachchi can't wait to watch her new bridegroom succumb to her allure--because of course he will!--and, in the words of the charming opening number "Minnat Kare," enjoy "a night not meant for sleeping."
Alas for her hopes and dreams: Kishen quenches her joyful spirit before they even complete the long journey home to her father-in-law's (Anupam Kher) house. After the ordeal of greeting the extended family, including her mother-in-law (Nina Kulkarni) and sister-in-law Gajrobai (a luminous Juhi Chawla), Lachchi presents herself for the consummation of her marriage, only to behold her husband fussily running tallies for the cost of their wedding. When she quizzes him, Kishen reveals that he'll be leaving in the morning for five years so he can run his father's business in another city. Oh, yeah, and Ma said "why waken desire for only one night" so... go to sleep, Lachchi. Alone. Lachchi obeys, but only after crying herself into a stupor.
Suniel Shetty has a very short appearance as Gajrobai's husband.
Three days after Kishen's departure, he returns. Or someone who looks just like him returns--actually, it's a spirit who caught sight of Lachchi during a stop on her journey home. Realizing that foolish Kishen has abandoned his bride, the spirit, who indeed instantly fell in love with Lachchi, resolves to take his place. Once he promises Kishen's father five gold coins per day, he's welcomed "back" with open arms, having fooled everyone into believing he's the real deal. However, he cannot bring himself to pull the wool over Lachchi's eyes, and reveals the truth to her. Lachchi, faced with the choice between remaining faithful to her real husband who's left her, or this confident dream man who's performed astounding feats in pursuit of a relationship with her, chooses the dream.
Paheli is a folk tale, as the regular interpolations of two puppets (voiced by Naseeruddin Shah and his wife Ratna Pathak Shah) remind us. The choice given to Lachchi is a symbolic one. In answer to one character's desperate plea of "tell me who you are!" the spirit's only response is, "I am the yearning that resides in a woman's heart... that's who I am. I'm the love she wants." (I admit that the idea of a relationship with a spirit was somewhat offputting at the outset, bringing to mind incubi and similar, but once I realized that the whole thing is a sort of allegory my mind snapped into the right mode for appreciating this charming tale.)
The story doesn't let Kishen off the hook, but it doesn't demonize him, either. After his astounding awfulness in the initial day of their relationship, we see why Lachchi retrieves her heart for her own safekeeping. However, on the morning of his departure, Kishen's wistful, "Where is your sister-in-law?" to the children who come to wish him a good journey reveals that his own dil is not quite as untouched as his wife believes. Years pass, and poor Kishen, alone but for a family retainer in a strange city, unmissed by a family who believes he's still at home, starts to dream about his wife. I defy anyone to watch "Khaali Hai Tere Bina" without a lump in her throat, especially when he gathers a sheet covered with Lachchi's painted footprints into his embrace.
I'm not sure when this story is supposed to take place. Perhaps it's in "fairy-tale time," i.e. recognizably "period" but not adhering to reality overmuch. The colors are delightfully vibrant and the costumes are stunning. The Wikipedia entry for Paheli dryly states that, "[s]ome critics have accused the Film Federation of India...of succumbing to lobbying, or pandering to the Academy by appealing to their stereotyped view of Indian society" since it beat out Black and other stellar films for the Oscar submission in its year. I have to admit that Paheli is definitely the most non-Westernized Bollywood film from recent years that I've seen. I don't regard that as a bad thing--rather the contrary--but I can see why people might roll their eyes about the lack of portrayal of real modern-day India. (Then again, it's not like Black was all that realistic either in its portrayal of "if Indians were the Colonialists" India.) I for one couldn't care less; I love this movie.
Oddly, in a movie about a woman's dilemma, Rani doesn't have much to do in Paheli--after the first twenty minutes or so, anyway. There wasn't anything about her performance that required much out of her, but she delivered ably as always. Maybe it's because I know she's capable of more that led to me being left with a "that's it?"
SRK, on the other hand, delivers quite the interesting portrayal of Kishen. The ghost is standard SRK formula--charming, suave, confident and oozing with charismatic sex appeal, conscienceless in his pursuit of what he wants--and it's quite amusing that the image upon which he's built his career is the one that's presented as a fantasy in the film. Very meta. Kishen, though, is slightly anal, definitely cowed by his father, and undersexed in the worst way if he can take a look at Rani in his bed and turn to accounts as a viable alternative. And yet, he's oddly sympathetic; I found myself totally rooting for him by the end--a tribute to SRK's talent.
The music in this movie is beautiful. Every single number is a delight, and the choreography is fantastic, especially the final song in which everyone dances in puppetry style. I couldn't figure out who could have choreographed it and was astounded to discover that it was Farah Khan, since the dancing displayed creativity that's been missing from her dance-by-numbers routines for years (except in her own films). Shreya Ghosal's ethereal vocals lend themselves well to the gentle melodies, and of course Sonu Nigam does his usual fine work, especially in "Dhire Jalna."
And the final outcome? Well, it's up to every husband to decide whether or not he'll even try to be the hero his wife wants him to be. And it's up to every wife to decide whether she'll allow her dreams to reside in her husband, slightly altered in a nod to reality, or keep them all to herself. As the puppets say, "It's an old story." Despite some unnecessary moments in the last third, this old story is worth every penny.