The movie opened the ninth Zimbabwe International Film Festival at the Libertie Cinema Complex in Harare. It was also screened at both the Sundance Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The working title of the movie was Ghost Ka Dost (translates to Friend of a Ghost). Paheli was India's official entry to the 2006 Oscars.
The movie is narrated by two puppets, voiced by Naseeruddin Shah and his real-life wife Ratna Pathak Shah.
Enthusiastic young Lachchi (Rani Mukerji) is to be married to Kishan (Shah Rukh Khan), the son of the rich merchant Bhanwarlal (Anupam Kher). Kishan is a dutiful son who honors his father's wish to start a new, far-away business on a predetermined auspicious date, which happens to be the day after the wedding ceremony. On the wedding night, Kishan turns away from his wife to finish his bookkeeping, and in the early morning hours sets off on a business trip that is to last five years. Lachchi is devastated; Gajrobai (Juhi Chawla), her husband's sister-in-law, consoles her, empathizing on the grounds that Gajrobai's husband Sunderlal (Sunil Shetty) has also disappeared. The next day, a ghost appears, having taken Kishan's shape and voice because of his own attachment to Lachchi.
Lachchi is thus presented a riddle (hence the title "paheli") between the representation of all of her desires in the form of the ghost and her real husband. She takes this new, fond, sexual, magical, social, self-confident version of Kishan as hers. As Kishan, the ghost befriends all of the real Kishan's family and keeps Bhanwarlal happy by providing him with magical, possibly illusory, gold coins. His only blunder is in his treatment of the messenger Bhoja, who is perplexed by the idea that Kishan has sent a letter from his business trip only to receive it himself in his own house and offended when the ghost (who appears as Kishan) does not offer him a drink of water. Lachchi's bliss goes on until four years later, when she is pregnant and the real Kishan returns to see if the rumours about his wife's pregnancy are true. He returns to find the ghost in his (Kishan's) own form. Kishan's family is unable to determine which of the doppelgangers is the real Kishan (the ghost refusing to confess). They decide to visit the king so that he can arbitrate.
On the way to the king they meet an old shepherd Gadariya (Amitabh Bachchan) who helps them out. He asks the real son of Bhanwarlal to pick up hot coals, asks the real husband to gather the sheep, and asks Lachchi's real paramour to enter a water-bottle. The real Kishan is found out and everyone returns home. Lachchi is devastated over the loss of the ghost. In the very end it is revealed that the ghost has escaped the bottle and taken control of Kishan's body to live with her. By now Lachchi has given birth to a daughter, Looni Ma, by whom the ghost exposes his identity to Lachchi. The puppets close the story, remarking that the plot is "an old story".Shah Rukh Khan as Kishanlal/The Ghost as Prem
Juhi Chawla as Gajrobai
Rani Mukerji as Lachchi
Anupam Kher as Bhanwarlal, Kishanlal's father
Sunil Shetty as Sunderlal, Kishanlal's uncle
Amitabh Bachchan as Gadariya
Rajpal Yadav as Bhoja
Dilip Prabhavalkar as Kanwarlal, Bhanwarlal's brother
Palak Jain as a cousin of Kishanlal (Child artist)
A.K. Hangal as Jeevraj
Naseeruddin Shah as Male Puppet (voice)
Ratna Pathak as Female puppet (voice)
Paheli was shot entirely in Rajasthan (Jhunjhunu district) in a period of 45 days. In 2004, Amol Palekar went to Shah Rukh Khan with a request for a hearing. After listening to the script, Khan asked Palekar if he could produce it as well as star in it. According to Khan, Paheli is a woman's liberation film that deals with the issues of marriage and asks whether a woman must stay with a man only due to marriage and not out of love.
Paheli was nominated as India's official entry to the 79th Academy Awards.
Taran Adarsh from Bollywood Hungama gave it 4/5 stars and said: "On the whole, Paheli is one of the finest films produced in the recent times. A film like this proves yet again that we don't need to seek inspiration from outsiders [read Hollywood], when the Indian literature is rich enough to provide us with captivating stories." Raja Sen from Rediff.com called it "A breathtaking dream", and said: "First things first, this is the best-looking Indian film in a very long time, and ranks up there with the finest ever. Amol Palekar has crafted a delectable fairytale that is incredibly well-shot. Ravi K Chandran's cinematography is spellbinding as he casts us into the fabulous sandscapes of Rajasthan with fluid harmony. Each frame of the film is picture-perfect, marinated in intoxicating colour. Watching Paheli is quite an experience, and it's from the very opening shot of the film that its sheer, magical palette overwhelms us." It was eventually featured in The ten best Indian films of 2005 list by Rediff.com, ranked third.
Paheli had good opening and saw 90% occupancy, however the collections of the film quickly dropped. The film had a total net gross of ₹187.5 million (US$2.9 million) in India and an additional US$3.63 million in the overseas market. It was declared an "average" in India but a "hit" abroad. Still, it proved to be a safe and profitable venture for its distributors specially after the good multiplex start.
The film's score and soundtrack were composed by the National Award-winning music composer M. M. Keeravani with lyrics by Gulzar. The soundtrack for the film released on 9 May 2005. M. M. Keeravani reused tune of 'Naadir Dhinna' from his Telugu movie "Okariki Okaru" for the song 'Dheere Jalna'.
Track listingMusic Label – T-Series
Paheli received many awards and nominations. The awards it won are highlighted in bold:National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer – Shreya Ghoshal
Filmfare Award for Best Playback Singer – Male – Sonu Nigam
Filmfare Award for Best Lyrics – GulzarZee Cine Award for Best Art Direction – Muneesh Sappal
Zee Cine Award for Best Film Processing – R Mittal
Best Actor – Shah Rukh Khan
Zee Cine Award for Best Playback Singer - Male – Sonu Nigam
Zee Cine Award for Best Choreographer – Farah Khan
Zee Cine Award for Best Cinematography – Ravi K. Chandran
Zee Cine Award for Best Costumes – Shalini Sarna
Zee Cine Award for Best Publicity Design – R D Parinja
Zee Cine Award for Best Audiography – Anuj Mathur
Star Screen Award for Best Art Direction – Muneesh Sappal
Star Screen Award for Best Playback Singer - Male – Sonu Nigam
Star screen Awards Best Actor – Shah Rukh Khan
Star screen Award for Best Cinematography – Ravi K. Chandran
Star screen Award for Best music – M. M. Keeravani
Star screen Award for Best Lyrics – Gulzar
Star screen Award for Best Choreographer – Farah Khan
The film Paheli has resemblances to the screenplay of Kannada film Nagamandala. Paheli's director, Amol Palekar, was accused of plagiarising the screenplay and storyline from Nagamandala. However, Amol dismissed the accusation saying that Paheli was adapted from a short story Duvidha written by Vijayadan Detha which had earlier been adapted into 1973 movie Duvidha.