One of the freshest mainstream Hindi pics of the year, folk tale-cum-meller "Paheli" is yet another demonstration, only a few weeks after her star turn in "Bunty aur Babli," that Rani Mukerji is the brightest and most versatile star in the Bollywood firmament.

One of the freshest mainstream Hindi pics of the year, folk tale-cum-meller “Paheli” is yet another demonstration, only a few weeks after her star turn in “Bunty aur Babli,” that Rani Mukerji is the brightest and most versatile star in the Bollywood firmament. Sumptuously lensed, upscale showcase for her and male megastar Shah Rukh Khan (here also producing under his Red Chillies banner) opened strongly on home turf June 24, and clocked up a torrid $632,000 in its first weekend in the U.S. Fest programmers should take a look for sidebar consideration.

Though a costumer, pic has a lightness that usually escapes Indian movies of this type. And though beautifully lensed by Ravi K. Chandran (with color processing on par with recent standouts like “Devdas” and “Kabhi khushi kabhie gham”), neither the colorful visuals nor Shalini Sarna’s exceptional costume design overwhelm the production.

In fact, there’s a curiously neotraditional feel to the movie, recalling Hindi folkloristic cinema of the ’50s — here revived in widescreen and color. Helmer Amol Palekar (“Eternity,” “The Square Circle”) has directed a pic of quiet intelligence.

Simple story, set in Rajasthan a couple of hundred years ago, is based on a classic tale by writer Vijaydan Detha, here framed through the eyes of two talking marionettes (voiced by Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak) as if told at a traveling puppet show. Device becomes rather intrusive as pic progresses — and is also unnecessarily used to “explain” what’s going on in the latter stages — but leads to a charming final number, with the thesps as human puppets, under the closing credits.

Kicking off with a real audience-rouser, choreographed by dance maestro Farah Khan, as Lachchi (Mukerji) prepares for marriage to rich trader’s son Kishan (Shah Rukh Khan), film gets straight down to business as bride and groom travel back to Kishan’s familial home. En route, at a haunted inn, a pesky shape-shifting spirit (Aasif Sheikh) takes an interest in Lachchi.

Once home, the slightly dorky Kishan is more interested in finishing the wedding accounts than consummating his marriage, and calmly tells Lachchi he’s leaving the next day on a five-year business assignment ordered by his dad, Bhanwar (likable vet Anupam Kher). The lonesome Lachchi is consoled by her sister-in-law (Juhi Chawla), who’s still waiting for her hubby (Suniel Shetty) to return from a similar trip.

However, as the departing Kishan passes by the haunted inn, the spirit assumes his form and “returns” home. This utterly confident Kishan hoodwinks the greedy father with conjured-up gold and pierces the heart (and more) of Lachchi with his hunky charm, even when he comes clean that he’s really a ghost. Two years later, post-intermission, complications ensue when the real Kishan decides to return.

Mukerji’s past pairings with Khan have failed to bring out her charisma, but here the two leads manage to maintain the folkloristic whimsy while adding a discreet modern edge to their characterizations. Chawla’s perf as the sister-in-law makes one wish her role was more developed, but there are enough lively supports to prevent the pic dragging during its leisurely first half.

Farah Khan’s choreography of the six musical numbers — especially “Dheere jalna” to signal the fake Kishan’s return, and “Kangna re,” centered on Kishan buying bangles — has a vibrant Rajasthani flavor rather than pure Bollywood excess, with cross-cutting that enhances character development.

Amitabh Shukla’s editing is fine, apart from a poorly cut camel race that opens part two, and Aadesh Shrivastava’s original background score is a major assist throughout.

Hindi title literally means “Puzzle.”

Paheli

India

Production

An Eros Entertainment release (in U.K., U.S.) of a Red Chillies Intl. production. Produced by Gauri Khan. Directed by Amol Palekar. Screenplay, Sandhya Gokhale, based on the story "Duvidha" by Vijaydan Detha.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Ravi K. Chandran; editor, Amitabh Shukla; background music, Aadesh Shrivastava; song music, M.M. Kreem; lyrics, Gulzar; art director, Muneesh Sappal; costume designer, Shalini Sarna; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Anuj Mathur; choreographer, Farah Khan; action director, Allan Amin; visual effects, Eagle Video Films; visual effects supervisor, Vishal Punjabi; associate director, Sandhya Gokhale. Reviewed at Vue West End 1, London, June 30, 2005. Running time: 140 MIN. (I: 72 MIN. ; II: 68 MIN.)

With

Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukerji, Anupam Kher, Dilip Prabhavalkar, Neena Kulkarni, Padma Rani, Mohan Bhandari, Aditi Govitrikar, Rajpal Yadav, Amitabh Bachchan, Juhi Chawla, Suniel Shetty, Aasif Sheikh, A.K. Hangal, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak. (Hindi dialogue)
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