/ produced by Gauri Khan / directed by Amol Palekar / starring
Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherji, Anupam Kher, Dilip Prabhawalker,
Neena Kulkarni / music by M. M. Kreem / lyrics by Gulzar
cinema is often patriarchal and seems to swing between treating
women as sex objects or paragons of virtue capable of sacrificing
themselves for the good of a child, husband or community. Paheli's
Lachchi finds herself in a different situation to those who
suffer so gloriously in films like Mother India and Reshma aur
Shera. Lachchi too lives in a traditional society but the difference
is that her "reality" is shaped by a benevolent story-teller
with a modern consciousness in the context of a Rajasthani folktale.
There's a sense of a puppeteer who pulls the strings to give
traditional motifs a modern emphasis and a happier outcome.
Paheli isn't entirely a folktale. Originally
Vijaydan Detha used four lines of documented oral tradition
to create a novel called Duvidha. This work has, in turn, inspired
two films - Mani Kaul's Duvidha (1973) and Amol Palekar's Paheli.
By Detha's admission, only ten percent of the original material
remains in his novel and possibly, even less in the two films.
However, like the central motif in a rangoli design, the core
defines the whole. Paheli still presents as a folktale; an allegory
and can be interpreted in various ways, depending on the psychological
make-up and experiences of the viewer.
It's the tale of Lachchi (Rani Mukherji) who
must choose between two identical looking men; her self-absorbed
husband and a loving spirit (both played by Shah Rukh Khan).
If told in a conventional manner, the story would involve guilt,
torment and sorrow for the woman who chooses the imposter. However,
Palekar's version, with a screenplay written by his wife, Sandhya
Gokhale, follows a less familiar path; that of reconciliation
without major conflict. And it's precisely because there is
almost no tension or drama that the film is problematic. It
is prettily done but may be frustrating, even disappointing
for an audience accustomed to more conventional tales. How can
there be a satisfying, "feel good" resolution without
Paheli moves gracefully to the rhythms of
M. M. Kreem's folk inspired melodies. But there are yearnings
and a darker side to the celebrations and rituals. Juhi Chawla's
notable appearances as the abandoned wife are images of private
suffering in a very communal setting. Occasionally solitary
figures brood on balconies but these moments do not override
the light, almost dreamlike relationship between Lachchi and
the spirit or the dazzling portrayal of life in the haveli.
A matriarchal tone is set as the film
opens with just women's voices chatting good-naturedly about
Lachchi's wedding. This sensibility gradually permeates the
film as the spirit strives to meet Lachchi's emotional needs
and as the birth of their girl child becomes more emphatic than
the male business of meting out justice. Farah Khan's choreography
reinforces a female perspective on another level. In Laaga Re
Jal Laaga a whirling female dancer executes the most physically
demanding movements in the film. Dances dominated be females
are often shot from above with the shapes created appearing
like living mandnas; representative of the folk art and ritual
practised by Rajasthani women. Both the songs and narrative
shed light on different facets of a woman's experience. A dialogue
is inserted into Dhire Jalna for instance, to illustrate how
powerless Lachchi feels while Laaga Re Jal Laaga is used to
frame the onset of labour.
As India's entry in the 2006 Oscars'
Foreign Film category, Paheli will be viewed by people who,
like me, are unfamiliar with the culture being portrayed. Hopefully
the surprising story, uniformly strong performances and sublime
packaging, will win their approval. I hope that the scene where
Lachchi cries because, for once, she is being asked what she
wants, will stay with them as it has with me. It's a captivating
moment; so simply put and so true.
reviewed by Lidia