This adaptation of a Rajasthani folk tale is sparkling, lush, and thoroughly engaging. Its resolution may not be palatable to all - but Amol Palekar's Paheli ("riddle") is a folk tale, not a morality tale.
On the day of her marriage, Lachchi (Rani Mukherjee) is sorrowful at leaving her family, but she puts on a brave face and travels to her new husband's home. That night, she finds Kishen (Shah Rukh Khan) more interested in balancing his accounts than in completing their marriage. When she presses him on the subject, he tells her that he is leaving the next morning for a five year business trip at the request of his father (Anupam Kher), an avaricious merchant. Why ignite passion, he asks, only to suppress it for so long? Lachchi is spotted, however, by a restless bhoot (ghost) who falls madly in love with her. When the bhoot gets wind of Kishen's departure, he transforms himself into Kishen's form and convinces the family that Kishen has returned. He cannot bring himself to deceive Lachchi, though, and reveals himself immediately, giving her the opportunity to banish him if she wishes. Lachchi chooses the ghost's love and companionship, and the two enjoy a blissful and passionate union. Trouble awaits them, of course, when the real Kishen returns.
The story has an edge, and perhaps uncomfortable implications. It is very appealing that Lachchi gets a choice; this kind of empowerment of women, in particular when it comes to sexual autonomy, is still rare in the movies (and not just Hindi movies), and I have to suppress an impulse to cheer when a woman in a film makes a bold decision that, for once, isn't self-sacrifice and martyrdom. And it's especially satisfying to see a movie in which a woman can make such a choice and not pay for it, literally or figuratively, with her life. Still, Paheli does make someone pay for Lachchi's extended frolic with the bhoot - the innocent Kishen, whose only crime is being somewhat haplessly under the thumb of his domineering father. Lachchi and the bhoot's love is steamy, romantic, and appealing, but it's far from a victimless crime. As I said, Paheli is not a morality tale; it's a spook story, dressed in beautiful clothes.
Implications aside, Paheli is a wonderful movie to watch. For one thing, it is an absolutely gorgeous visual feast. The rich colors of Rajasthan shimmer and dance in the desert backdrop, the luxurious interior scenes, and the silken costumes. It is lushness done right; I can't help contrast Devdas, with visual excess that weighs the film down and amplifies everything that is overwrought and affected to an intolerable degree. In Paheli, the sumptuousness enhances the fairy-tale feel, transporting the story to an unspecified time and place. The saturated colors and rich sparkle perfectly suit the magical elements of the story.
Paheli is also a showcase for one - two, actually - of Shah Rukh Khan's best performances. I am no great fan of his, and it is a nice treat here to enjoy a film because of, rather than despite, his work in it. He distinguishes Kishen from the bhoot with a real physicality, making each character appealing in his own way (neither one is the arrogant hero characer with which he made himself a superstar), yet still keeping within the broad style of the film. Rani Mukherjee's performance is unremarkable but more than adequate to the task; I like her, so I enjoy it completely, especially in the film's beautiful, folk-tinged songs. Anupam Kher is very funny as always as Kishen's miserly father, in the kind of comic role he can do in his sleep. A hysterical cameo by Amitabh Bachchan (and an unusual one by Naseeruddin Shah) add to the film's grandness. The sum is a film that I just love, much to my surprise, and expect to watch again and again.
(ETA: There is an outstanding discussion of the implications of Paheli's ending to be found on the BollyWHAT? discussion forums, beginning here.)