2005 / 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

    Bombay 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 struggle?

   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



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Rani Mukherjee as Lachchi


Nice moustache!

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