Monday, September 8, 2008

Paheli, or, Rani's Riddle

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."

Big B moderates the showdown.

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.


  1. I love this movie. It may not represent modern India in the strict sense but showcases the best of Indian folklore tradition. As one who read a lot of such folktales growing up, I was thrilled to see something like that on the big screen. The rich colors, lovely costumes, the traditional music, the sumptuous sets - they are all so evocative of "Indian fairytales" that I have a hard time understanding anybody preferring Black (or anything realistic) to this!!!

  2. I really enjoyed this! Whether it was Rani, the 'Phal, Phool, Gulaab Jal' line, Rajpal Yadav ('hum sab Kisen Laal hain' -- hilarious!), Juhi Chawla (albeit in a minor role), the sets, or the music (including 'Phir Raat Kati'), there was much to appreciate. I didn't mind that it was slightly slow in some segments. And I wish Shah Rukh did more of the variety. Although, as you say, he did morph into a role he is most comfortable in.

    As for films in 2005...the other two I really liked that year were Parineeta and Mangal Pandey, both period films. I think all we can ask for from these films is that they succeed in taking us back in time. Thought all three did that brilliantly!

  3. bollyviewer--I think one of the best things about this film was how entirely Indian the whole thing was. I don't recall a word of Hinglish and that was fun! I definitely loved almost everything about it.

    Hello, bollywood fan! That line (Phal, Phool...) is something I've been repeating over and over again. Like yoiu, I really liked Parineeta (I've got a review here on the site) but haven't seen Mangal Pandey since I know how it ends. LOL You're right, they do a wonderful job of removing us from the drab everyday.

  4. After reading ur review i can only manage to say that it's excellent.I hvn't seen the movie looking forwarded to see it.

  5. Hey! I've been married for a long time too. A little bit longer than you though. I'm not sure how old your kids are but my kids are 12 and 8. But been married 13 years.

    Paheli is a beautiful movie. I saw it in the theatre and for some reason, I think I had high expectations. It was good, but I wasn't in love with it. I do need to rewatch it though. Yes, indeed it is a fairy tale type of story.

  6. Saheli--thanks for the compliment, and I hope you post about your take on the movie once you see it.

    Nicki--my kids are 9, 5, and 2. I think Paheli is gorgeous--so much so that as soon as the movie was done I watched it all over again just to look at the costumes. LOL I bet you'd like it more on a second viewing.

  7. I love this movie- every frame was beautifully breathtaking. Aside- I loved Sunil here- so macho- if he only had a bigger role- [sigh]

  8. Shweta--I totally have a crush on Suniel. It's inexplicable but true. I think Farah Khan does too, considering all her talk about his "stylish walk" in the MHN commentary. LOL

  9. I actually feel all better about my Suniel-crush now- this worries my husband a fair bit, since his name is Sunil as well- rofl.

  10. Ha--I always tell *my* husband that he has no room for complaint, considering that he could watch Kajol dance all day long. ;-)

  11. I agree I really enjoyed this movie.It took me by surprise too since like you, when I read the synopsis I was put off with the concepts of ghosts and such in this story initially....but it was a charming movie

  12. Hi Reviewer! Yeah, "I Had An Affair With A Bhoot!" sounds like a headline from the Weekly World News, but once I understood the whole symbolism of the film I was able to love it. And it *is* totally charming.

  13. Ajnabi--I actually did see this, and want to rewatch it-Like Nicki, I liked it but wasn't in love with it--But have grown since then and realize Bollywood is more than the typical song and dance SRK sequence, so...can't wait to retry it and review!

    Your paragraph on SRK's performance is so right on. How ironic indeed that his typical SRK persona would be the "fantasy" of the film! I can't help but think the ending would have been better if for example, the ghost would have been only present in scenes with Rani, and at the end we would have discovered he was only a figment of her longing imagination--that she truly was in love with her husband and wanted him badly enough to conjure up an imaginary lover in his likenss! But that would have changed the whole story entirely, so I guess its best the way it was. And, you're right, one does end up rooting for Kishan.

    Agree with you and Bollyviewer that the film is supposed to be a "fairy tale" and thus wasn't meant to reflect much realism or moderness at all.

  14. Nida, I bet you'd really like it on rewatching; it's got a lot of hidden depths. I've heard that the DVD after the first pressing sucks--lots of interstitial ads and stuff--and I'm so bummed that it's so difficult to find a good copy, because I'd love to own it. (Okay, I confess: I seriously considered keeping the Netflix copy and reporting it lost so I could pay for it! LOL But then my innate honesty won out, darn it.)

  15. I love this film, it's so beautifully shot, so colourful, and the performances are great. I love that the woman gets to choose. I love that it's a fable. And I also love the puppets (and the puppet dance at the end)! It's sad that it didn't fare well at the box office, as it's the kind of film I'd like to see Bollywood do more of.

  16. Hi, Daddy's girl! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I really wish it had done better at the box office too; I find it interesting that so many of the non-desi people over at the discussion forums really like the film and yet it failed in its home country. Hmmmm. I would love to see more films like this too.


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