Review: Paheli / Parineeta

Posted on July 3, 2005


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A spirit enters the world of humans in a dreamy, evocative love story that succeeds more often than not.

JULY 3, 2005 – THE SUHAAG RAAT SITUATION in our cinema is typically one where a bunch of giggly sakhis teases, and the coy bride blushes – but what Laachi (a gorgeous Rani Mukerji) does in Paheli may well be unprecedented. The giggly sakhis are around, all right, but she sings, anything but coyly, “… barson ke baad jagne ki raat aayi hai,â€? that the night is finally here when she won’t be sleeping. That’s not all. During the actual suhaag raat, husband Kisanlal (Shah Rukh Khan) is occupied otherwise, so she part-petulantly demands of him, “Ghungta nahin kholenge,â€? if he won’t lift her veil. (That soft thump you heard was probably Kabhi Kabhie’s Rakhee fainting in shell-shock.)

That’s just the beginning of this fascinatingly female-centric story, and what’s most fascinating is the way the females are centric to the story. When we first see star-cum-producer Shah Rukh’s face, it’s out of focus; it’s Rani’s beauty, in the foreground, that the peerless Ravi K Chandran’s camera is worshipping. More telling is how Kisanlal is often dismissed as the saat phere wala, as if his only identity is from being married to Laachi. But despite seeming like one of those dreaded “feministâ€? parables, Paheli isn’t about women fighting for rights as much as women surviving after losing even the most basic rights. In their own way, they’re strong.

They’re strong sometimes like Laachi’s sister-in-law (Juhi Chawla), who conceals with smiles the sadness of a missing spouse. They’re strong sometimes like the wife of a messenger, who burns a letter he’s entrusted to deliver because it’s from someone who insulted him. And they’re strong sometimes like Laachi herself, who willingly accepts companionship – in every imaginable way – from a ghost who falls for her and assumes the form of her husband, who’s away on business. (Not much surprise there, though. The ghost doesn’t cheat or lie, makes wonderful love, woos her with rose petals, even wishes for a girl child – had he also been tall, dark and handsome, Mills and Boon would have snapped up publishing rights. And that’s not entirely in jest; maybe the point is that The Ideal Man is as much a romantic illusion as a… ghost.)

That’s the main tangle in Paheli – Laachi’s situation, having to choose between the husband who’s left her and the ghost who’s sought her out – and it made me wish the movie had been named Duvidha, like the Vijaydan Detha story on which it is based. (The latter, by the way, has interesting parallels to the French art-house hit Le Retour de Martin Guerre and its Hollywood remake Sommersby.) “Paheliâ€? makes it sound like Laachi’s situation is a riddle, a teaser, while what she’s facing is actually a life-altering dilemma, a duvidha – just like the duvidha faced by the villagers later on, having to decide who’s the real Kisanlal and who’s the replica.

That decision, incidentally, is the one time that a man – a gleefully eccentric Amitabh Bachchan, as a homily-spouting shepherd – steps up and does something useful. The rest of the men are pretty much figures of pity or contempt, whether its Kisanlal’s money-minded father (Anupam Kher, in a terrific, toned-down variation of his Dil character), the chillum-loving uncle (Dilip Prabhavalkar, a complete riot), or even the weak Kisanlal himself. The latter and the ghost form a great double role – a practical man; his romantic alter ego – and Shah Rukh responds by downplaying his characteristic fussiness, his nervous energy. It’s a good performance, but he doesn’t look right – and it may not be entirely the fault of a very contemporary haircut. There’s a scene where he’s pitted against (the dependably hilarious) Rajpal Yadav, who walks, talks, looks, acts so like someone from the region, Shah Rukh comes off as a pretender in costume.

But Rani is quite magnificent in a fairy-tale role tinged with the very real-life complications of an extramarital relationship. She wails when the ghost declares that this relationship will proceed only if she wants it to, and I thought her tears were due to her dilemma, being torn between moral transgression and marital bliss. But she reveals, “Aaj tak mhari marji kisi ne nahin poochhi.â€? She’s overwhelmed because no one’s ever asked for her opinion or permission before. She’s so contradictorily alive, Paheli just isn’t very interesting whenever she’s not around – especially with director Amol Palekar making the ghost do a little too much. Not only does the latter fill the void in Laachi’s life, he also resolves a matter of shame in her family, and even leads the parched village to water. Suddenly, for a stretch, the bhoot becomes Bawarchi, the friendly, neighbourhood Mr. Fix-it. (It’s also reminiscent of Nana Patekar waltzing into Anita Kanwar’s life and righting all wrongs, in Palekar’s own Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen.)

But there’s another, pleasanter reminder of Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen, and that’s in Palekar’s use of (MM Kreem’s enchanting) songs to embellish the mood of his narrative. Only Laaga re is out of place; the rest are interpreted beautifully, sometimes spliced into parts. Just hearing the soundtrack, you’d never have known, for instance, that Khaali haath is a most unusual birah number, alternating between Kisanlal pining for Laachi and Laachi pining for the ghost, or that when Laachi asks for seven-coloured bangles (in Kangna re), she may also be referring to the rainbow that appeared after her first night of lovemaking with the ghost. And in the same number, if you thought the dhola re bit was a cue for in-house banjaran Ila Arun to make a Lamhe-style cameo, it’s actually the theme that underlines Juhi’s loss.

The only major thing that left me wanting was that Palekar’s dreamy, languid storytelling style was at odds with the folksy rush of energy around – in the songs, the choreography, the costumes, the sets, the surroundings. Sometimes, he seems to realise this, as when he uses puppets as sutradhars commenting on the proceedings – but I wish he’d opened it up more, made it rawer, like Bhavni Bhavai, which presented its folk story as folk theatre rather than classy, glossy cinema. That may have stripped away some of the layers of refinement, swept us closer to the raging passions that drive these people. But that, really, is a tiny carp about marketplace realities. I mean, how many of us would plonk down multiplex ticket prices for Bhavni Bhavai today?


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A new take on an old-Kolkata classic looks great, sounds great, but doesn’t feel so great.

JUNE 19, 2005 – WHEN GIRISH (A SWEET, GENTLE SANJAY DUTT) first sets eyes on Lolita (Vidya Balan) in the sumptuous new adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Parineeta, a musical motif from 1942: A Love Story plays in the background – as if to remind us that Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the director of the latter movie, is the producer-writer behind this one. It’s an off-puttingly self-referential touch, but thankfully the only one. The rest of the wall-to-wall musical flourishes – like the East-West mix of Kolkata, circa 1962, being described not only by Amitabh Bachchan’s singsong voiceover, but also by Elvis records coexisting with a Raj Kapoor-style accordion performance at a party – centre around the other man in Lolita’s life, the dilettante musician Shekhar (Saif Ali Khan, perfectly locating the mercurial heart of his character).

The melodies that Shekhar plays on his piano reflect the state of his mind, which in turn reflects the state of his relationship with childhood-friend-and-true love Lolita. In happier times, he composes the lulling Piyu bole – Shantanu Moitra’s tunes are beautifully apt – and when suspicious of her relationship with Girish, he pounds out angry chords that crash all over the place. The seeds of this suspicion, meanwhile, are sown while he’s at a… recording studio, and, later, when she moves to London, he resignedly takes over his father’s business, muttering, “I’m not a musician [anymore], sirf ek businessman…â€? – what he means, of course, is that Lolita’s exited his life, and therefore so has the music.

It isn’t often that music is so resourcefully, so romantically integrated into a movie – yet it’s a song that shows exactly what’s problematic about Parineeta. It’s hardly five minutes into the film, and Shekhar bursts out with Soona man ka aangan. There’s anguish in the words, there’s anguish in Sonu Nigam’s voice, there’s anguish on Shekhar’s face – but there’s no anguish in us. We don’t feel anything because we don’t yet know who these people are, what the fuss is all about. It’s like Dil Chahta Hai opening with Aamir Khan brooding in the Tanhaai number. It’s emotionally a bit off.

If the timeline is inconsistent, so is the tone. The story of Parineeta essentially has a lot of elements of Devdas – a rich, westernised hero’s childhood friendship with not-so-rich girl-next-door eventually turns into love; his class-conscious father disapproves; he’s too weak to stand up to his father (who labels his love a whore); his self-destructiveness drives her (in a way) into the arms of another rich man, thus setting up the inevitable triangle – and director Pradeep Sarkar seems to be simultaneously going for the gentle restraint of the Bimal Roy version as well as the operatic bigness of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s take. (Even Shekhar’s admonition to his father, “Bade kachche businessman hain aap,â€? sounds just like Aishwarya Rai’s Paro teasing Devdas, “Hisaab ke bade kachche ho tum.â€?)

So on the one hand, there’s the delicacy of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s characteristic surrealism, bringing Lolita (as a little girl) before the grown-up Shekhar. Suddenly, there’s the melodrama of an old tree being felled to indicate the near-death of an elderly character. In between, there’s a (supposedly) subtle attempt to differentiate the women in Shekhar’s life. (Wholesome, middle-class Lolita bakes her own cake; richie-rich heiress, played by Dia Mirza, orders one from the bakery. Really!) Later, when Shekhar receives some news that makes him burn with jealousy, there’s an in-your-face cut to the smoke coming out of a steam engine. Just as you’re settling down with one kind of storytelling, there’s a switch to another, and this hot-cold mix keeps you from warming up to the characters, from caring too much about whether Lolita ends up with Shekhar or with Girish.

But if Parineeta doesn’t always make complete sense, it’s never less than a completely sensuous experience – it’s been a while since we saw something so sinfully beautiful. The very first shot is surrounded by a rectangular, golden frame, which slowly moves towards us and then out of the screen. The effect is that of entering a painting, and from then on, there’s not a moment – or person (say, Vidya Balan, whose old-world gorgeousness beautifully complements her fluttery, self-conscious performance, reminiscent of a Hindi film heroine from the period this movie is set in) – that belies this promise. My favourite visual came during the Piyu bole sequence, when the distance between Shekhar and Lolita dissolves into the imagery of what they’re singing about. It’s as if their minds are so tuned to one another, they think the same things at the same time – and it’s such times that make you think what Parineeta could have been had its emotional consistency matched its exquisite craftsmanship.

Copyright ©2005 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi