A thought so simple it sweeps you into a stratosphere of supreme sublimity, images so bewitching they transport you into a world of yummy yearnings and performances so clever and yet artless they makes you wonder why stars don't jump the fence dividing mainstream and 'other' cinema more often.
Paheli leaves you with all these thoughts. Plus a smile.
Welcome to the folk-fettered world of Amol Palekar's tender triangle about a man, his neglected wife and a thoughtful ghost.
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Paheli is luscious and lyrical. Its pronounced use of light, colour and sound lends an exquisite texture of ripened tenderness.
The simple tale is told with a long-forgotten flourish. Muneesh Sappal's artwork and Ravi K Chandran's camerawork furnish the film's framework with a unique blend of nostalgia and modernity.
That's the stirring synthesis which Palekar's film targets to achieve. Here's the story of a neglected wife in a business family that is located in a time long gone-by. She could be Meena Kumari in Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam or Shabana Azmi in Deepa Mehta's Fire.
Rani Mukerji's Lachchi is timeless in her desolate resonances. Sandhya Gokhale's screenplay is constructed through her perspective. When the ghost gently confesses to Lachchi that she can choose between asking him to stay or leave, Lachchi breaks down with, "No one has ever asked me what I want."
It's a heart-stopping moment embracing the tormented neglect and solitude of women-folk in patriarchal set-ups.
Seen in that light, Paheli is a story of feminine solitude and redemption told with that twinkle-eyed quirkiness which comes naturally to a filmmaker from the other side of the fence.
In doing the folk tale with a compendium of songs and dances, Palekar doesn't resort to the 'formula' film. He goes beyond. When the characters break into those beautifully choreographed songs, time doesn't stop still. It moves forward and shows the passions and emotions of mankind in sensuous colours.
Here's a film and filmmaker not abashed about returning to Hindi cinema's starkest roots. Paheli takes us to the inner-most recesses and rhythms of folk art with gallons of giggles and glamour to prop up the pulsating cadences of life that are as elegiac as contemporary.
There are arresting amounts of lucid drama, such as the early sequence where the travelling bride gorges blissfully on ber, only to have her dull workaholic husband remind her of decorum.
As the dull husband and the playful passionate ghost, Shah Rukh Khan is a revelation. Though at times 'Shah Rukh Khan' peeps out, he remains steadfastly in character in the double role.
Rani's Lachchi is matched by Juhi Chawla as her sister-in-law who brings out the abandoned wife's tragic dignity so well, you wonder why we don't get to see more of her in the film.
But the absolute scene-stealer is Amitabh Bachchan, who, as the eccentric shepherd who solves the riddle of the double husband, comes onscreen in the last reel, bringing with his persona the velocity and humour of an actor who has seen it all, and yet can surprise you.
Portions of the wispy plot could have done with some filling-out. The comic sequences with Rajpal Yadav are too stagey to blend into the love story. Also, the camel race seems to be a case of buying time before the inevitable confrontation between love and loyalty, feelings and failings...
The striking Rajasthani vistas never distract from the characters' commitment to creating a climate of credibility within the format of folksy fantasia.
Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah's voices for the two puppets serving as the narrators are a masterstroke.
Paheli takes the cinema of Shah Rukh Khan to places we never thought it would go. The archetypal Rahul that Shah Rukh played all along has been relocated.