Shahrukh Birthday Countdown! Paheli, an SRK-Amitabh Movie for Amitabh’s Birthday

What a nice coincidence! Amitabh’s birthday and Yashji’s birthday, both perfectly timed to post a collaberation.

This was the first of the “Shahrukh is producing something challenging and weird and no one gets it” movies. At least this one got some critical acclaim along with cult popularity, to help soften the blow of the bad box office. But really, was it ever going to get good box office? Shahrukh has a mustache and a big turban. The whole thing takes place in the past but it’s not a historical. It takes place in the context of a family home, but it’s not a family movie either. It’s just weird.

Image result for paheli poster

I appreciate the full commitment to that oddness. There is never a moment of the film that feels out of period, overly modern. Or a moment that feels out of character with the fable like story, a moment that is too literal or too magical. You can lose yourself in the world of this film without even realizing you are losing yourself because it doesn’t feel like a fake world. It’s just logical, reasonable and appropriate to the story.

The performances are a large part of this. Every actor has to tread the line of being sincere and simple in their performance, while also not breaking the feel of the fable and becoming too natural. This is not a movie for actors to stutter and gasp through dialogue, or let their hair fall in their eyes, or their clothes wrinkle, or their gestures fly around. This is a movie to be straight and clear, while also sensitive and emotional. And they successfully achieve that.

Rani and Shahrukh lead the cast. It would be Rani’s movie, except that Shahrukh takes an extremely difficult double role, almost impossibly difficult, and his ability to walk that fine line between the two characters is what carries the whole movie. Rani is still the lead of the film, the character whose journey we follow, but it is Shahrukh’s two characters who have the greatest growth and change over the course of the film. Rani’s ability to give us a strong steady center, and Shahrukh’s acting feat make the whole film work, even though it really shouldn’t. Around them there is a larger cast that gives us a varying degree of sincerity in their performances, from the extreme mannerisms of Amitabh to the simple sadness of Juhi. Each character represents a simple character type, a basic role in the world of the film, and a position in this little fable we are seeing.

This is a lovely film but, in many ways, it feels like it belongs more as one of those fairy tales I used to love when I was a little girl. I can picture an illustration labeled “Bride”, another one labeled “husband”, “ghost”, “Sister-in-law”, “Mother”, “Father”, “Uncle”, “Servant”. And then the simple words of the story along with pictures, before ending with the perfect simple moral of the story.

The biggest problem with this film is that it is the kind of simple story that requires a moral. And yet, the moral is denied to the audience. The film walks us right up to it and then turns away. It’s an awkward moment of unfaithfulness to the tone of the rest of the film. If this is a simple straightforward magical story, than it should have a simple straightforward magical ending. There is a place for art that leaves holes, that makes the audience make up their own mind. But that place is not at the end of a movie that otherwise has been completely obvious and clear.

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Rani is a bride, married to the son of a wealthy trading family who lives a day’s journey from her family home. She is happy and excited about her marriage, but on her wedding night her husband Shahrukh spurns her in favor of paperwork and tells her he is living the very next day to spend 5 years in the city protecting his father’s trading concerns. On the journey to the house, a spirit saw her and fell in love with her beauty. When he sees her husband leaving, the spirit decides to take on the guise of her husband so he can sleep with her. Only he is so in love that he tells her the truth, and she decides to stay with him anyway. For 2 years they are happy, and then the real husband returns.

Here is where the moral should come in to play. It’s a simple moral. We see the spirit grow over the course of 2 years, he arrives at first merely because he is obsessed with the bride. But he is welcomed into the house and the family and comes to learn the magic of the human experience and being part of a larger family. He goes from being a spirit to being a human. Meanwhile the husband is cut off from the human experience, alone and isolated from his family. With distance and absence, he becomes more spiritual and finds the heart inside of himself. In the end, the two men combine. The spirit provides the fearless heart that loves, and the human provides the man who cares for the whole world and not just the heart inside himself. But the problem is, no moral!!!! The film ends with the spirit possessing the body of the husband. It comes right up to where it needs to go, but stops just short of giving the audience the nice tidy speech we need, the moment when Shahrukh (or the narrator) says “Your husband and I are now combined into one man, who loves you and is entirely human”. Or something like that.

What I noticed on this watch is how both of Shahrukh’s performances are leading to this ending. The husband’s story is a bit showier and more obvious. He sits alone for 2 years, and obsesses over the few minutes he had with his wife. He agonizes because he is receiving no letters from his family. And finally it is too much for him, his heart overcomes his common sense, he disobeys his father and walks away from money in order to return home and see his wife. He goes from a soulless dutiful machine playing out the role of “husband” and “son” without really feeling them, to someone whose heart wakes up. But the ghost has a less obvious and still fascinating journey.

Part of my problem with this film was that I felt like the ghost wasn’t drawn clearly enough, what was his plan? What did he want? But on this watch I saw it differently, he didn’t have a plan and he didn’t want anything. He was going into this with no rules and no control as much as anyone else. He is a spirit, after all. He is not used to thinking beyond the moment, and certainly not used to thinking about the greater good and how his actions might affect other people. So he turns himself into a man in order to see a beautiful woman again. He is confronted by the man’s father (Anupam Kher) and quickly invents a story on the spot. He is smart, and he is powerful, he can get out of anything on the spot. But what he is not used to is thinking about consequences. “Dheere Jalna” is about him realizing that life is limited, time is limited, and he must consider how he uses it. Thus, when he has a chance to fulfill his impulse of the moment and be with the bride, he stops and instead tells her the truth. He wants more time, honest time, and just then in that moment his plan changes.

We see just brief parts of their life together after that. But those brief moments show how the spirit becomes less and less a spirit and more and more human. His wife teaches him to think about his family, about what people will think, about the greater happiness of the community. He tries to trap her in the bedroom, but lets her go when his mother calls for her. He entertains his wife by making bangles for her, but also entertains the other women of the house. He helps the family win a camel race, not for his own amusement, or to please his wife, but because he cares about the family as a whole and understands that winning this race might help the lost son of the house Suniel Shetty return home. And finally, he comes to care about the whole community of people, and uses his cleverness to trick his father Anupam Kher into building a new well.

It’s not just the new well, it is that he chooses to trick Anupam into it. He doesn’t want to build it by magic, he wants to help like a human helps, with hard labor. And he understands the greater importance of Anupam being the one to help the community, that it will be good for Anupam, good for the community, even good for the family to honor Anupam for something real. From a spirit who impulsively started a charade with the hope of perhaps one night of sex and no consideration for who he hurt, he has become fully a man of men, caring for everyone and wanting them all to be happy. Culminating in wanting a child, a baby to carry on this charade into another generation.

Both these journeys are fascinating. And yet, we don’t get a conclusion for them, the ghost deciding to live half human and powerless from now on and the man choosing to welcome the ghost into himself because he finally understands love. We instead get an ending only for Rani.

Rani’s character and performance are wonderful, but the film doesn’t work if they are the point of the story. She starts out as a cheerful bride, leaving her home but happy about where she is going, eager to get to know her new husband, and her new family. But when her husband announces he is leaving without consummating the marriage, she is heart broken. Her identity, her purpose in life is gone. When Shahrukh returns as the spirit, she is thrown into an identity crisis. What defines her as a woman? Being married in front of society, or being with a man who loves her? She chooses the second choice, accepting a man who is there and loves her rather than the cold comfort of a meaningless role. But she finds herself trapped in uncharted territory. In order to continue as she wants to go on, she has to teach her spirit “husband” how to act like a real human. They build a marriage within a marriage, a secret world inside of the public bounds. But there is no future for it, as time passes we see Rani go from a young happy bride to an increasingly troubled woman, fearing that she has no control over her life, the good things in it can be taken away without notice. Until we reach the end, when she takes control for once, and chooses to tell her husband the truth, that she slept with the spirit willingly, knowing what he was. She is no longer interested in playing the “bride” and the “wife”, she wants to continue being herself, her individual person. And she is rewarded by learning she has not lost her lover after all, he has magically returned to her.

And that’s great, if this was a film about woman’s desire. About how a bride who wants a marriage inspires a spirit to fall in love and come to her after her husband leaves her. And how her strength and honesty brings that spirit back to life within her husband’s body. But that isn’t this film.

This is a story of three people. Rani, the bride, who desires a husband who loves her and the security and safety of a place in the world. The husband, who tries to follow the rules and do the “right” thing but hurts himself in the process without realizing it. And the spirit, who doesn’t believe in rules or places or anything but discovers that a sustaining love needs to be protected. And the ending doesn’t give us an answer for two out of those three, leaves us feeling like we were wrong to care for them, like the film played a trick on us somehow, like somehow this story wasn’t really real after all.

4 thoughts on “Shahrukh Birthday Countdown! Paheli, an SRK-Amitabh Movie for Amitabh’s Birthday

  1. This was one of my first, it’s gorgeous, Rani’s gorgeously sad and conflicted – so I’ll always have a soft spot for Paheli. But i can’t get over the ending either. It’s alright for the ghost, too, I think. But we spend too much time with the husband not to feel sorry for him. He doesn’t have the magic to change all the things the ghost does. And he was born into this family, so he’s a lot more indoctrinated into obeying his dad. That doesn’t make him a bad person who deserves to be pushed out of his own body. I love your idea that that’s not what happened, but both men are sharing that body now.

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    • Yeah, I don’t know why they didn’t figure out that ending better. They created this harmless sad person, and then just abandoned him at the end of the story.

      On Sun, Oct 11, 2020 at 2:09 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. An aspect of this film that gets ignored when “the critics” discuss Shah Rukh’s work is the deftness of his portrayal of two men. How he can switch in a moment from one to the other even though they look alike. More than in Duplicate, more than in RNBDJ. The comparable moment is in Dilwale when he is fully into his new life as a garage owner and the henchmen (also reformed) come to tell him who harmed Varun and in a split second he becomes Kali…its a brilliant moment. Fan of course was a tour de force: not only did he play the fan brilliantly, he played a movie star who looks like him but is NOT him…

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    • It is remarkable, to the point that you naturally start thinking of them as two different men, there’s no effort of suspension of disbelief involved.

      Like

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