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Paheli

July 9, 2010

Bollywood Movie Review #3

Paheli, starring Shahrukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee (and a cameo by Amitabh Bachchan), 2005.

Paheli (which means Puzzle) is based on a Rajasthani folktale. I don’t know the folktale, so will not be able to address how the movie is faithful or divergent from it. This is a  visually stunning movie with wonderful settings and costumes – beautiful saris and amazing turbans.

We begin with Lachchi, a young girl from a fairly wealthy family who is preparing for her marriage to a promising young man, Kishan. The groom and his family arrive to convey Lachchi to her new home some miles away. On the trip, they stop at a well to rest and eat briefly. This well, however, is haunted by many ghosts. One of these ghosts sees Lachchi and falls in love with her.

As the journey continues it becomes evident that the bridegroom is not very interested in his marriage or bride. He is pouring over the accounts for the wedding expenses, because they don’t add up and he must resolve the discrepancy. Once they arrive in the bridal chamber, his preoccupation with the accounts continues and, much to Lachchi’s dismay, it comes out that Kishan will be leaving in the morning to travel to another city to run his father’s trading business there and will return after 5 years! No point in “igniting passions” (and not much point in having gotten married either). Lachchi is to stay behind, serve his parents and wait for his return.

As planned, Kishan leaves the next morning on his “five year mission.” He travels back by the same well where they had stopped the day before. The ghost who fell for Lachchi sees him and recognizes him. Why is the bridegroom abandoning his bride so soon?! The ghost decides to take advantage of this foolishness, takes human form identical to Kishan and returns home to Lachchi. The family is surprised to see him back so soon. Ghost Kishan convinces the father to accept his return with a story of how he met a sage who granted him a boon saying that every morning when he wakes he will find 5 gold coins. What matters to the father is wealth, so he accepts this explanation and allows Ghost Kishan to stay.

Lachchi is very happy to see her new husband returned so soon and hopes for a proper wedding night. To his credit, Ghost Kishan is up front with her and tells her the truth that he is not her husband, but a ghost who loves her so deeply that he has gone to this extreme to be with her. He gives her the option to accept him or send him away. She opts to keep the ghost lover rather than have no husband at all.

So, years pass as Ghost Kishan and Lachchi live happily together and the real Kishan toils away in a faraway city, completely unaware.

As time wears on – the real Kishan begins to long for his home and new bride. Meanwhile, Lachchi is having Ghost Kishan’s baby. The plot thickens and comes to a climax. Real Kishan returns home just as Lachchi goes into labor. The family spends a lot of time pondering the puzzle of TWO Kishans. Finally, they decide to travel to the King to have it resolved. On the way, they encounter a shepherd (Bachchan) who offers to solve their problem. He offers three tests to determine who is the true husband (and who is the true lover) of Lachchi. The Real Kishan is revealed and the Ghost Kishan is “trapped” in a water skin. All return home.

Lachchi is now faced with yet another “wedding night” this time with the Real Kishan. To her credit, she is up front with him and tells him that she knew all along that it was not him, but a ghost impersonator. She admits how deeply she loved the ghost and that she doubts that she can ever love Real Kishan. At which point, Kishan discloses that he is the ghost (not trapped at all) who has now taken over the body of the real Kishan, so they can live happily ever after together.

I’ve watched this twice. After the first viewing, I watched the “making of” special feature and was surprised to find that they thought this was a story about the empowerment of a woman. My western mindset said “Huh?!?” So, I had to watch it again. From a western point of view, this is a woman who can be talked into anything, who is blown about on the winds of external forces. From the eastern point of view, however, it is different. I think the key is in that scene where Ghost Kishan tells her the truth and gives her the option to decide. She disregards societal rules that would have dictated that she refuse this lover and remain faithful to her dud of a husband, no matter what.

There are a couple of puppets who seem to be connected with the ghost (his parents, perhaps) who appear occasionally to explain things. One of their dialogues points out that the bride is subject to the desires of the husband, the husband is subject to the desires of the father, and the father is subject to the desire for wealth. Lachchi breaks this chain by asserting her desire to be genuinely loved.

Another clue to her “empowerment” is the fact that she is truthful with the final incarnation of Kishan instead of taking refuge in the assumption that she was fooled by the ghost.

So, a western feminist has to look very hard to see a positive message for women. If we were to write it, she would have taken one good look at her dud of a husband, said “no thank you,” gone back home and gotten a career or at least waited until someone better came along.

(Indian movies seem to be obsessed with romance. It’s all about the falling in love. They are very poetic and free with “your eyes are like limpid pools” type talk. However, not even kissing is portrayed in the movies. The leads will start to lean in for a kiss and another character will interrupt or there will be a carefully placed umbrella to hide the kiss. It strikes me as strange that a culture with a long tradition of arranged marriages would be so entranced by romance. Maybe that makes all the sense in the world.)

The movie’s official page – http://www.redchillies.com/paheli/index.asp

Info at Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paheli

Info at Internet Movie Database – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0451850/

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One comment

  1. At least he has a GREAT hat!



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