Feminist Bollywood: Paheli

What do you do about a problem like Lachchi?

Paheli (Puzzle) is a fantastic movie, and one of my favorites by any metric. The cinematography and costuming are gorgeous, the music is vibrant and fun, the dancing is breathtaking, the acting wonderful, and the story sensitive. The 2005 movie was one of the first from Red Chillies Entertainment, star Shahrukh Khan’s production company. The story is more linear than many Bollywood movies, and so a good choice for first-timers.

Movie poster for 2005 Bollywood film Paheli.
Movie poster for 2005 Bollywood film Paheli. From Wikipedia.

Available on DVD from Netflix and on YouTube without subtitles. Also available from distributor Eros. My library has a particularly good Bollywood section; they also have Paheli. Check with your library – you never know!

The story concerns newly married Lachchi, played by Rani Mukerji. Her new husband, Kishen (Shahrukh Khan) seems nice enough, if distracted by money matters. On their way to his house (and her new home), they stop by a well and encounter a spirit. Once home, Kishen explains to Lachchi he will not be consummating their marriage as he is leaving the next morning for a five-year long business trip. Lachchi cries herself to sleep.

The next day, Kishen stops at the same well, and the spirit realizes he is leaving. Having fallen in love with Lachchi, the spirit assumes Kishen’s form and returns home in his stead. He bribes the real Kishen’s father (when asked why he has returned so soon) and explains to Lachchi what he really is. Lachchi decides she’d rather have the love of a nearby spirit than a faraway human husband. Their life together is overall a happy one, and a few years later, Lachchi finds herself pregnant.

The real Kishen misses his wife, and is upset that he never hears from her or his family. He returns home just as Lachchi goes into labor. Everyone assumes he is the imposter and asks him to leave. Finally, Kishen, the spirit, and his family head off to the king’s palace to get the situation figured out. On the way, they meet a wise old shepherd who solves the puzzle.  The spirit is (seemingly) banished, and the real Kishen is happy to resume his life, bearing no grudge toward Lachchi.

The movie ends with the reveal that the spirit is now in Kishen’s body.

Paheli is remarkable for its concern with Lachchi. She tearfully tells the spirit how no one has ever asked her what she wanted, which is one reason she accepts him. The spirit only wants to please her and is consumed only with love for her. Late in the movie, when asked to explain himself, the spirit says that he is love, the love inside the heart of a married woman. Lachchi herself is beautiful and kind, beloved by all who meet her. As a fairy tale (the movie is set in the “olden days” in Rajasthan) it matches up well with any European fable about making an arranged marriage work. The movie is concerned with Lachchi’s happiness, and that she deserves more than to just endure, that she deserves love and respect.

And yet.

Lachchi is never fully developed beyond “beautiful and kind.” I’ve watched this movie probably a dozen times, and I still couldn’t tell you much about her. Lachchi likes berries and bangles; she helps prepare food and feed pigeons. She accepts her arranged marriage and seems fond of her in-laws. She is genuinely upset that her new husband is leaving, and she does take some time to consider the spirit’s offer.

But that’s it. Unfortunately, the men (the real Kishen and the spirit) are the ones who have actual arcs. The Lachchi from the end of the movie is nearly the same as the one from the beginning of the film.

The real Kishen realizes the value in following his own desires, and not just bending to his father’s will. He returns home because he wants to, because he can no longer be apart from Lachchi. He works hard, if somewhat ineffectively, to prove who he is. He had ignored his wife initially, but looks for ways to please her.

The spirit learns what it means to be human (of course), and that having power means having responsibility. Not to be flip about the latter point, but the spirit must learn that even if magic makes life easier in the moment, there can be long-term consequences for taking a short-cut.

Paheli is clearly in favor of women, and yet the focus remains on the male characters.

By Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

One reply on “Feminist Bollywood: Paheli”

I have to say, as a Bollywood fan, I really like this one! It’s cute, got nice sets and costumes and great songs — and yes, we can’t forget the awesome feminist message. But yeah, I agree — it’s still too focused on the males in the story, and *of course* Lachchi’s worth is still tied up in being with a man and marriage. But hey, it’s Bollywood — what can you do? One. Step. At. A. Time.

Are you going to do Umrao Jaan next? Because, sure it’s depressing, but it’s got some good points in there. Or better yet, how about Jodhaa Akbar? It’s a little more positive and has good feminist points in there too. (And yes, I know, I am promoting all the Aishwarya Rai movies, but you have to admit she’s been in some great stuff.)

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