By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
A thought so simple it sweeps you into a sublime world, images so deft, dark and bewitching they transport you into a world of yearnings, and performances so skilful they make you wonder why our 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 world of Amol Palekar's light and tender triangle about a man, his neglected wife and a thoughtful ghost.
The flick's frisky and risky folk-flips are so endearingly naďve it could have fallen into a hilarious heap on the floor. To the director's credit, the sharp contours of the folk tale and the wispy and profound inner world of people who live lives of pain come across in wave after wave of charming montages that sweep you along a windswept landscape.
PAHELI is luscious and lyrical. Its pronounced use of light, colour and sound lend an exquisite texture of ripened tenderness to the goings-on.
The simple tale is told with a long-forgotten flourish of folksy frothiness. Muneesh Sappal's supple artwork and specially Ravi Chandran's camerawork furnish the film's framework with a unique blend of nostalgia and modernity.
Here's the story of a lonely and neglected wife in an avaricious business family that is located in a time long gone-by. She could be Meena Kumari in "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam" or she could be Shabana Azmi in Deepa Mehta's "Fire".
Rani Mukherjee's Lachchi is timeless in her desolate resonance. Wisely, Sandhya Gokhale's screenplay is constructed through Lachchi's perspective. When the ghost gently confesses to Lachchi that she can choose between asking him to stay or leave, Lachchi breaks down.
"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 filmmaking fence.
Palekar isn't fearful of falling. In doing the folk tale with a compendium of songs and dances, he doesn't resort to the 'formula' film. He goes beyond and deeper into our folk traditions.
When the characters break into those beautifully tuned and choreographed songs, time doesn't stop still. It moves forward in a glow of fluent flow, denoting the primeval passions and emotions of mankind in colours that are subtle and sensuous.
There are arresting moments of lucid drama, such as the early sequence where the traveling bride gorges blissfully on bed, 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 tantalizingly, he remains steadfastly in character, playing the two roles of flesh and spirit with an irony that scoffs at convention.
The archetypal Rahul that Shah Rukh played all along has been relocated. The spirit is willing and the flesh is definitely able.
Rani's Lachchi is matched by Juhi Chawla as her sister-in-law who brings out the abandoned wife's tragic dignity so well that 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 on screen in the last reel, bringing with his persona the velocity and humour of an actor who has seen it all, and can yet surprise you.
Portions of the wispy plot could have done with some filling-out. The comic sequences with Rajpal Yadav are too stagy 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 happens.
The on-location periodicity of the narrative is maintained with prismatic candour. 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.
Sometimes fantasy can provide an ideal excuse to tell the truth about the quirky quality of human existence. PAHELI proves it.