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Upperstall Review


The Japanese Wife


English, Drama, 2010, Color

Cast And Crew

Snehamoy (Rahul Bose), an Arithmetic teacher in a school in the Sundarbans, near Gosaba, the nearest town, is an orphan. He has been brought up in the loving care of his Mashi (Moushumi Chatterjee). He is a shy person who keeps to himself, does not socialize and is scared of responsibility. He finds it easier to correspond with 18-year-old Miyagi (Chigusa Takaku), his Japanese pen friend, who responds to his letters with warmth that slowly turns into love. Miyagi lives alone with her invalid mother and small puppy Haiku and is as shy as Snehamoy. They even get married in absentia through a silver ring Miyagi sends him and the white conch-shell bangles he sends her in return. Their bond strengthens though Snehamoy's Mashi tries to fix up a match with her friend's grand-daughter Sandhya, another shy young girl. Snehamoy rejects the proposal. He finally tells his Mashi that he has already married his Japanese pen friend a year ago. The husband and wife communicate through letters with misspelt English words and wrong syntax and grammar as English is not a strong point with either of them. He calls her up from public booths but every time, the line gets disconnected before he can finish what he wanted to say. 15 years pass without the husband and wife ever setting eyes on each other. Mashi takes a widowed Sandhya back with her son into her fold and Snehamoy's life changes subtly. When Miyagi's mother dies and she is planning to join her husband, she falls seriously ill. A worried Snehamoy takes a six-month leave to scout around every school of medical science looking for the right treatment for his wife. Do the husband and wife finally meet and settle down like a normal couple?

The Japanese Wife is Aparna Sen's first film based on someone else's story, Kunal Basu's. It is based on the absurd premise of a marriage that survives for 17 years though the husband and the wife have never set eyes on each other. The 'marriage' too, is not like marriage rituals practiced in India or in Japan. Yet, the physical details are deeply grounded in reality. They exchange 637 letters over 17 years in imperfect English. "My English is not very strong," writes Snehamoy and Miyagi tells him, "Mine, neither." The letters are recited in the soft, almost child-like voice-overs of the two filling the sound-track with ripples of love as it spreads and bridges the chasm of geographical, cultural and linguistic distance. Snehamoy's intrigue about Sandhya, the young widow, is a visible presence though he is fiercely faithful to his distant wife.

The Japanese Wife would have been a very intimate private film. The river changes everything. It brings Nature in as a character. The river divides the village and the nearest town, sometimes calm, peaceful and placid, often harsh, merciless and violent. It reflects the influence of the weather on the lives and deaths of those who live along its banks and must depend on its volatile moods. The nights of storm when the river is flooded, the night-sky filled with the jagged and scary lines of lightning, the sound of thunder on the soundtrack underscores the role of the river in the film. The house where Snehamoy lives with his protective, affectionate, talkative Mashi is in keeping with his modest means of livelihood and the village ambiance. His room is in a state of flux. Filled with ash-trays spilling over with cigarette ash, an unmade bed with the mosquito net hanging any which way, the Japanese objects de art spread around the room are slowly and silently set in order by Sandhya who does up his room in his absence. The last time we see his bed is when Mashi is weeping bitterly with her hands spread out on the mat that covers the empty bed that Snehamoy will never lie on again.

The market place crowded with street shops, telephone booths and small gullies and a phuchka seller throws up the contrast between Snehamoy's inner world and the noise and the bustle of and colourful world outside. The angry kite seller gives away kites for free for the impending India-Japan war of kites over who wins. The kite fight is a rich visual treat, beautiful Japanese kites with faces painted in bright colours dot the azure blue sky, humbling their Indian rivals, simple and small. We see a different Snehamoy pulling and struggling with the colourful manja made at home. The Japanese Wife is Sen's most visually rich film. The credit for it goes both to debutant cinematographer Anoy Goswami and art director Gautam Bose. This colour turns into a sad white in the saris of the three widows - Mashi's, Sandhya's and Miyagi's when she comes draped in a milk-white sari and blouse.

Miyagi is a powerful presence in Snehamoy's life, home, family and among the villagers too. She is present within her visual absence - in Mashi's sad monologues about missing out on a grandchild, in Sandhya's small son bringing him letters from his Japanese Kakima, in the collage of photographs laid out under the glass of Snehamoy's table, the wall-hanging on the wall, a Japanese lamp, a flower piece set out on a transparent sheet, the shopkeeper who jokes about the Japanese Boudi when Snehamoy goes to buy a box of vermillion for the kite fight, everywhere. But most importantly, in, that massive carton of kites Miyagi gifted him with on their 15th wedding anniversary. This colourful carton with Snehamoy's name written out in one corner in bold black print is present from the opening frames of the film till the end.

The characters emerge as real, flesh-and-blood people. They are different because of the naive innocence that is missing in the contemporary, urban ambience. Rahul Bose who speaks impeccable English in real life and not very good Bengali, is incredibly credible as Snehamoy - diffident, uncertain, slightly timid, whose life turns over a page of vigour when Sandhya's son injects some liveliness into it via the beautifully orchestrated kite fight. He covers the span of 17 years with conviction, not only because of the salt in his hair and his slow and slightly bent gait, but also by virtue of the subtle way in which he slips under Snehamoy's skin, flesh and blood. Raima as Sandhya has very few lines of dialogue. Her eyes, face, gestures and body language do all the talking. The scene in the boat where she tugs at Snehamoy's cuff and gestures to him to sit beside her is touching. When she breaks down in the middle of the night on the steps of the bungalow and Snehamoy tries to console her, she is aghast when she realizes that she is in his arms and runs inside.

Moushumi as the Mashi is spot on. Her character grows from youth when Snehamoy is a young orphan till the last scene where she breaks down across his empty bed, trying to feel the 'son' she brought up. Having mastered the dokhno accent, her speech is no-nonsense, simple and brutally frank. The way she crinkles up her nose when she hears Miyagi's name and thinks it is Magi (slang for prostitute) is a scream. Her gait gets heavier with age and so does her body. It is perhaps the finest performance of her long career. Chigusa Takaki shines with her naive innocence and freshness, her sweet, lisping and wrong English, her sad, lonely face as she tends to her sick mother, a framed picture of Senhamoy on her bedside table and her trying to cope with her terminal ailment with a brave face. The camera catches her mainly in mid-close-ups, mid-shots and long-shots, with one picture of her in a yellow sari with a small red dot on the forehead. When she comes to India and crosses the Matla River on a boat, her head is shaved off all hair and she is dressed in a milk white sari and blouse. Her head is shaved not as much for the chemos she has undergone but because Snehamoy had once written that some Bengali widows also cut off their hair depending on how much they loved their husband. But she still wears the white conch shell bangles because Snehamoy had not told her that when the husband dies, his widow should take off their conch shell bangles.

The Japanese Wife is like a water-colour painting that moves along with the characters that people it. Brief cameos, such as Photik who is obsessed with flying kites, or the Ayurvedic doctor (a brilliant performance by Paran Bandopadhyay) or the oncologist (Jagannath Guha), the kite-seller (Kharaj), Sandhya's adorable son are etched out in minute detail leaving behind their footprints in the film. The total lack of logic in the storyline is undercut by the beautiful way Aparna Sen chooses to narrate it in. So, this writer takes away two from the ten and gives it a rating of eight.

Upperstall review by: Shoma A Chatterji

The Japanese Wife is a somewhat unusual name for an Indian film. But, it should come as no surprise since it is being made by Aparna Sen, whose path breaking directorial debut was also a film with an English title, 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) made more than 20 years ago and like The Japanese Wife, it was an English film. Unlike her peers Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, Sen is rooted in India and gets Indian producers to direct her films. The Japanese Wife is produced by Saregama, which Sen recently joined as creative director.

"It is not completely in English as there is a smattering of Bengali dialect of the kind spoken in the Sundarbans in West Bengal. English was chosen as the principal language to reach a wider audience, that's all," explains Sen when asked, adding, "you will get to hear some Japanese as well," explains Sen.

What sets The Japanese Wife apart from other Sen films is that for the first time in her career, Sen is making a film on someone else' s story. The film is based on a novel of the same name authored by Kunal Basu who teaches Management Sciences at Oxford. "My original plan was to make a fictionalized film of the five trekkers from Jadapur University who died last year in a trekking tragedy. Then during discussions with Kunal, he narrated the storyline of his unpublished work, The Japanese Wife and I changed my plans, deciding to make this film instead," she elucidates.

Rahul Bose says he is playing one of the most challenging and difficult characters in his entire career in films. "I love to work in Aparna's films and consider myself lucky to have been chosen by her to play important roles in three of her films one after the other. In the earlier films, namely Mr& Mrs Iyer and 15 Park Avenue, I did very urban characters. Here, I play something that is radically different not only from the films I have already done, but also in terms of the character I play. I am a rustic, simple schoolteacher who grows from a teenage of 17 to a mature man of 40 and the dimensions are intriguing indeed. I teach arithmetic and am a shy, introvert, and slightly timid young man. I am not bothered about the young widow Sandhya who is my neighbour, yet, I strike up a relationship with a girl I have never seen. The way I read Snehamoy, he is an escapist. He has his Maashi to take care of him where he lives and works, and he has his wife in distant Japan, a woman he has never met, so he does not have to carry the baggage of responsibility that marriage entails. For him, this side of the river, the Sundarbans, offers a safer cocoon than life on the other side of the river, filled with competition, affluence, power, and relationships. He is safer on his side of the river and does not even wish to venture out to the other side. Where can I discover love in all this, tell me?"

What is Moushumi Chatterjee's take on her first film with a person she once shared screen space with? "I play Snehamoy's aunt in the film. She has brought him up. She is like a tender coconut - hard on the outside but soft inside. The character I play is touched up with subtle comic touches and I speak my lines with the typical dokhno accent used by the local people of the Sundarbans. Thanks to theatre person Sohag Sen and her workshops, I have been able to acquire some command over the accent to make it seem credible in the film. Sohag Sen should be credited for having selected me for this character in the first place. I had read the script and had liked it. I even had to gain weight for the role. My only regret is that Rina-di (Aparna Sen) has directed a host of veteran actors. Then why did it take her so long to realise that as an actress, I too, have potential? But she is really, really a wonderful director," she sums up, dressed up in the borderless white traditional Bengali widows wear.

Raima Sen plays another important character in the film. She is Sandhya, a rustic girl who is a neighbour of Snehamoy and his Maashi. She is a child widow but she does not wear widow's weeds. Joysree Dasgupta, a Rabindra Sangeet exponent in her own right, is designing the costumes for this film. She has given a typical rustic look to the beautiful Raima, sari worn Bangla style but tied up at the waist and a little above the ankles in the usual style of young village girls, hair tied up in colourful ribbons without a trace of make-up on her face. "I must thank Sohag Sen for the grilling she gave me in the 25-day workshop before shooting. It is a gift to be able to work in an Aparna Sen film,"she says.

"This film is purely a love story. It does not have any message, nor does it contain a political agenda. Love, I believe, is the only way out of this moral and social decay the world is going through. If this is the message that gets across to my audience, then that is fine with me. But I did not consciously put it there. Love, I think, is the only emotion that can bring back our respect for the values that are getting lost today. It is for my audience to decide whether it is a love story or whether there is a subtle agenda flowing like an undercurrent right through. Then there is the question of the art of letter writing. In this age of electronic correspondence like the e-mail, people have stopped writing letters to each other. But it is such a moving emotional experience. I still feel it has the emotional touch e-mails and faxes can never have,"says Sen.

The film has been shot on an ideal location in a fisherman's cooperative the team happened to chance upon near Kolkata's Eastern Bypass. The producers then put up a complete set costing around Rs15 lakh to set up the entire structure including the house in the middle of a water land and even grow vegetation over time to give it the ambience and look of reality. They have shot some scenes in Japan and there has been extensive location shooting in the Sundarbans, "where is was so hot and humid that you would get completely soaked in sweat the minute you came out of your bath," informs Rahul. Others in the cast are Kunal Basu himself in a brief cameo and Rudranil Ghosh who plays an interesting character - that of a youngster who is obsessed with flying kites. Anway Goswami, from FTII, Pune, is doing the cinematography while Gautam Bose has done the production design. Let us wait and watch for this "modern day fairy tale" to unravel itself on the large screen.

- Shoma A Chatterji

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