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By A brilliant choice of characters and carefully chosen incidents make the Japanese Wife a rare treat, says Parambrata Chattopadhyay.
  • Published 10.04.10

..The only words I could find to describe Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife.

I imagine only a supreme understanding and belief in the subject on the part of the director can lead to a film acquiring these qualities. It’s tough to predict the box-office result of this film but I do believe there is still a section of audience in Bengal who prefer true cinema to mindless plots, futile glitz, wannabe stars and expensive foreign locations for a set of “new” look-alike Bangla mainstream films.

I do recommend the film to them. But please don’t go for this film if you suffer from the suppressed anxiety that just because it’s a Bengali “art house” film directed by none other than Aparna Sen, it is your middle-class intellectual/cultural obligation to say that you have liked it even though you actually haven’t. It will be a pity if someone unwillingly praises a film of this quality.

Based on a short story by Kunal Basu, The Japanese Wife is actually a set of letters exchanged between Snehamoy (Rahul Bose) from somewhere in Bengal’s Sunderbans and Miyage (Chigusa Takaku) from Yokohama, Japan. Pen friends initially, they soon fall in love and start considering themselves to be a married couple.

They never meet physically but that does not deter their undying love for each other. This postal relationship spans almost two decades in the course of which the characters move from youth to middle-age, with the narrative breaking the patterns of linearity at times, especially in the beginning.

What nourishes this simple outline is a brilliant choice of characters, their nuances and small but carefully chosen incidents.

Moushumi Chatterjee packs a unique blend of love and power in her portrayal of Snehamoy’s ever so loving pishi (aunt), who with time learns to live with her virtual daughter-in-law.

Raima plays Sandhya, a widow living under the same roof with Snehamoy and his aunt. Silently in love with Snehamoy, Raima plays the sexual counterpoint to Snehamoy-Miyage’s long distance, non-physical relationship, and all so effectively and subtly. Her part being predominantly silent, it cleverly tackles Raima’s lack of command over Bangla and enables her to put in a free and sensitive performance.

Rudranil Ghosh and Kharaj Mukherjee remind one of their ability and worth within their brief presence.

But the one who steals the show is Rahul Bose. Far too often we find him playing stereotypical urban roles where at times he seems repetitive. But here he breaks out of his comfort zone and executes the rural, nerdy schoolmaster Snehamoy with amazing elan. He brings in a distinct change in his body language, which is remarkable, and maintains it till the end.

His letters to his wife in Japan, heard as voice-overs throughout the film, are rendered beautifully by Rahul himself in a typical jagged, hesitant and bookish “Bengali” English.

It’s funny, though, why only one odd scene right after the intermission has Rudranil’s voice replacing his own. The demure Chigusa slips easily into Miyage’s part, enabling the audience to empathise with Snehamoy.

The fundamental premise of the film has an element of poetic absurdity. But instead of doing away with it, Sen builds on it, planting characters with subtle yet strong nuances and incidents, which instead of rushing you to the end of the film allows you to sit back and relish this peculiar but real slice of life.

In the process, the film acquires a uniqueness that is the hallmark of a truly international film. The moments of humour not only make you laugh but also fall in love with the characters, because of their innocence and serenity.

The posters describe the film as a love poem, and certain parts of the film undeniably validate this claim. The scene in which the huge Japanese kites sent by Miyage to her husband are being readied for the local kite flying competition, poetry is created on the screen, through immaculate choreography and composition.

Cinematographer Anay Goswamy and editor Rabiranjan Moitra (and also probably the DI colourist) join hands with Sen to make the film look and feel the way it does. The camera captures the colours of Gangetic south Bengal and bits of Japan with equal ease but keeps the contrast on the higher side, which lends richness to the visuals. There are innovative and unexpected camera movements in a few shots that add a new kind of mobility to the film, also rendering it a lilting, casual mid-tempo rhythm.

The kite-flying sequence is an epitome of the celebration that life itself is. Sagar Desai’s background score aptly harps on the pentatonic notes as a reference to the Far East and Gautam Basu’s production design not only takes good care of the details in the Sunderbans section but also beautifully replicates Miyage’s Japanese surroundings.

My only point of dissonance lies in the conclusion, which I’m not going to divulge. In terms of resolving issues concerning the narrative, the fate of the characters seems to be a bit of an easy way out. I must confess that I haven’t read Basu’s story and I am not aware whether the ending is the same as in the film.

To end on a personal note, I would like to thank Aparna Sen, our Rinamashi, for this film. Before I leave for the foreign shores again [Bristol, where he is pursuing a course in film and television production], this film is like a gift which only adds to my sense of pride of being a part of the lineage that is Bengali cinema.

My favourite Aparna Sen films

36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)

“It’s the first of its kind, given the period it was made in. An important milestone.”
(Jennifer Kendal, Dhritiman Chaterji and Debasree Roy)

Paromitar Ekdin (2000)

“I could relate personally to most of it, hence it’s an easy second.”
(Aparna Sen, Rituparna Sengupta, Sohini Halder, Rajatava Dutta, Rajesh Sharma)

The Japanese Wife (2010)

“It’s the most well-planned and executed of her films.”

Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002)

“A genuine attempt to address important issues. A little sloppy narrative-wise, I felt.”
(Konkona Sensharma, Rahul Bose)

Sati (1989)

“It’s quintessential Bengali art house cinema.”
(Shabana Azmi, Arun Banerjee, Kali Banerjee)

Which is your favourite Aparna Sen film and why?
Did you like/dislike The Japanese Wife?