A review requested by K. Rice, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

In requesting a review of Paheli as part the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser, K. Rice noted that I've never once in almost ten years reviewed a Bollywood film, and wondered if that was due to my dislike of the industry's redundancy and artlessness, or if I'd simply never seen any of the things. It is with a fair degree of shame that I confess it is the latter: as of Paheli, I believe I've now seen all of three Bollywood movies. It's a curious blindspot, one that I know to be shared by many other hardcore cinephiles; while nobody really serious about international filmmaking could get away with being unfamiliar with Iranian cinema, or South Korean, or Filipino, or sub-Saharan African, Bollywood doesn't "count" for some reason, despite being one of the oldest and most consistently prolific film industries in the world, and despite an influx of stylistic touches cribbed from it in European and American films in the 21st Century. There's a great deal that could be explored about this cultural ghettoisation, but I'm bringing it up at this moment mostly to explain why, for the rest of the review, I'm going to have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.

Stripped down to its elements, Paheli is a folk tale; it admits as much, explicitly in its final line and implicitly elsewhere. So, once upon a time, Lachchi (Rani Mukerji) married Kishanlal (Shah Rukh Khan), the son of the wealthy merchant Bhanwarlal (Anupam Kher). She was extremely happy about this, and all of her girlfriends were happy for her, and the whole world seemed happy for her, to judge from the bright colors blowing their way off the screen. And something else was happy, too: while the bridal party stopped over on their way back to Kishanlal's home, a ghost spotted her, and was so taken with her beauty and joyful mien that it started following her, first in the form of animals. But the happiness was about to come crashing down, for Lachchi discovered on her wedding night that Kishanlal was leaving on a five-year trading journey first thing in the morning. And he was so busy with preparing for it, and thinking hard thoughts about money and business, that he couldn't be bothered to consummate his marriage. Thus the abandoned bride was devastated and wept, and the ghost made its move, taking Kishanlal's form to seduce Lachchi, after confessing its true identity. And thus, after four years of living as husband and wife - the ghost using ghost-gold to keep Bhanwarlal from looking too closely at this rather suspicious turn of events - Lachchi found herself pregnant, and the real Kishanlal came home ahead of schedule. And this caused the insoluble riddle that the word "paheli" translates as.

The film occupies, for nearly all of its 140 minutes (which I take to be very much on the short side for the kind of production this is), two apparently incompatible states. As a piece of storytelling, Paheli is grandly presentational and flat, starring essential personality types done in bold, thick outlines rather than psychologically plausible characters, working through big rich, showy emotional states. And while it's doing this, it's exploring themes of social obligation and female empowerment and sexuality with understated subtlety. Mukerji is called upon to give a performance that's less a matter of finding her way inside a character than striking poses with names like Joy and Ardor and Fortitude; and while she's doing this, she's also called upon to believably play a concept of upended gender roles that needs to feel like it's coming out of a character's head. It's an odd mixture of the highly generic and the highly particular, all the odder because neither Mukerji nor Paheli seem to notice or care. Perhaps because of this lack of visible strain, the mixture ends up working perfectly; it's full of bold, proclaimed moments that all add up to something smaller and more delicate than any of them individually.

Perhaps also because the theatricality on display in the movie ends up standing in for character development: it's fair to suggest that things like costumes (which are extravagantly artificial) and color palette (which favors heavy saturation and lightness) are the medium through which Paheli tells its story, rather than what its characters think about what's going on. And as far as that goes, director Amol Palekar does miraculous work in maintaining the film's visual splendor, and using it to express the richness of the character's feelings with intensity that, were it all dumped on the actors, would leave things feeling faintly ridiculous and overheated. Of course, Paheli is overheated, to be strictly fair; and even a little ridiculous. But the way that Palekar uses the sprawling spectacle and sudden musical numbers to focus our attention on the subjective experience of of the characters, rather than letting the style roll heavily over the film (which I have found, in my minute knowledge of Bollywood, happens much too easily). Palekar is able to move from big expressions of delight to big expressions of morbidity without any whiplash, because he's already done such a good job of convincing us that bigness in all its modes is the natural state of his film.

The result may be lavish and gaudy, but convincing in its gaudiness, if you will; the notion of musicals the world over is that they represent the overflowing of feelings so strong that they can only be sung, and Paheli carries that over to all the trappings of musicals, its sets and design and baldly implausible plot. It's all wholly inauthentic and implausible, and it knows that we recognise it as such; so it welcomes us over, asks us to have a good time enjoying all the dizzy nonsense, and then while we're enjoying ourselves, shows us through a parade of strong feelings both good and bad, and asks us to think about the lives of its characters, and how sad it is for them that, in the "proper" order of things, they're not allowed to have those feelings. It's how the film sells its social message without seeming even vaguely a message film; it's what forgives a final plot development that should be all means come across as sour and hateful, turning our heroes into sociopaths. The enthusiastic lack of persuasive realism and the strong emotional authenticity make for a most rewarding combination; the thing acts fizzy and shallow, and yet it ends up feeling like there's truth to it. Now, I repeat myself: I have no fucking clue if this is some kind of exemplary Bollywood film or if ten films like this come out every month (in my uselessly small sample size, this is the clear standout). And I don't know if I'm responding to its quality, or its novelty, for this is nothing like a normal Western film. But even at its most frustratingly erratic, I found it all rather entrancing, and never less than extraordinarily easy on the eyes. So take that as you will.