Sunday, November 06, 2005
I had no intention of reviewing Bollywood films on my blog, but "Paheli" पहेली ( riddle) deserves to be the exception because it is one of the best movies to come out of Bollywood in a long time.
This story is based on a novel by leading Rajasthani folk-tale writer Vijaydan Detha, set a couple of hundreds of years ago and framed through the eyes of two talking marionettes (voiced by Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak) as if told at a traveling puppet show.
A wedding party in Rajasthan (desert state of India) on its way home, stops to rest under a banyan tree on which lives a ghost (banyan trees in Indian mythology are well-known for being the abode of ghosts). The bride, Lachchi, played by Rani Mukherjee, lifts her veil for a second and the ghost falls in love with her. Soon after they arrive at the groom's father's house, which is where the bridal couple will make their home, the slightly dorky groom, Kishan, (played by Shahrukh Khan) is more interested in finishing the wedding accounts than consummating his marriage, and calmly tells Lachchi he's leaving the next day on a five-year business assignment ordered by his dad. On his way out of the village Kishan passes under the same banyan tree, and the ghost, surprised and curious that the groom would leave his beautiful wife so soon after the wedding, takes on the guise of a man and proceeds to chat up the groom for information. Once he's grasped the facts, he takes the form of the groom, and goes to the village home.
To explain his return to the business-minded father, the ghost (but now in Kishan's likeness), invents the story of a sage who has promised him five gold coins if he stays at home. But the ghost doesn't deceive the wife. He tells her plainly who he is and how he wants to make her happy, leaving it to her to accept or reject him. Therein lies the dilema. Now that Lachchi knows he is not really her husband, can she accept him? She has to decide between accepting the true love of a ghost versus the indifference of a flesh and blood person. The young woman accepts her ghostly lover and they live together for three years. After she gets pregnant, the news of her pregnancy spreads through the village and beyond, until her husband Kisna, gets to hear of it, too. He rushes home only to see...himself! The family and villagers are now confronted with two identical sons... you need to see the movie to find out how it turns out.
To many viewers this might just be pure entertainment, after all, this enchanting story is laid out elaborately, in riotous colours and Rajasthani exotica, but "Paheli" is more than that. It brings up questions. For instance, in accepting the ghost as her lover, was the wife being unfaithful to her real husband? After all, a ghost, even if it takes a human form, is still a spirit. If she cheats with an 'other- worldly' being, is it still cheating? And, who was the ghost really? When asked for his identity, the ghost said that he was the love that pacified the longing that is in every unfulfilled woman's heart. So this is plainly a love story on several levels---physical, emotional, spiritual and other- wordly. "Paheli" is also about a woman's right to make choices for herself concerning her own happiness. In Indian society, all too often a woman's fate is tied to her husband. She does what is decided for her by him. In Paheli, Lacchi decides not to take her fate lying down, but to actively and consciously create it. I hope it fares well at the Oscars.