Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Japanese Wife - An old world love letter

A tale of binding poetic love spanning a period of almost two decades, 'The Japanese Wife' is based on a story by Kunal Basu. Helmed by filmmaker Aparna Sen, this tale from India is set in rural Bengal in the Sunderbans where Snehamoy (Rahul Bose) lives with his aunt ( a delightful Moushmi Chatterjee) and teaches Math at the local school. He is painfully shy and unable to communicate with the surrounding people, yet opens his heart up to a pen friend from Japan, Miyage (Chigasu Takuku). She is similarly socially challenged and takes care of her widowed mother. The two communicate their thoughts through weekly airmail and when Miyage comes to know that her only friend is being set up for marriage by his aunt, she proposes to him.

The two get married by exchange of traditional marriage symbols. He gets a ring, she gets a pair of conchshell bangles and sindoor . This is all done by airmail. The two are poor and don't have the means to travel cross continent. She also has an ailing mother to tend to. They are united in spirit. From hereon the movie leisurely paces through their lives, his mostly. In Snehamoy's otherwise lonely life which is only populated by Miyage's letters, her absence and the little memorabilia from Japan she sends across, enters a young widow (Raima Sen) with her young son. The widow is his aunt's friend's daughter,left homeless after the death of her mother and husband. A pseudo family unit is formed and Snehamoy may see the normal life he denied himself. But his heart beats only for Miyage who is still unable to make the physical move over to him, now because of her failing health. They make a few futile attempts to reach out on the phone, across bad connection and broken English, to each others voices.

The tale, given its time period, is implausible. We see through the background of Hindi movie songs and subtle conversations, that their love traversed the nineties through the first decade of this century. Theres an explanation given for the lack of internet, email usage by our lovers. And yet, even in the most improbable scenario, an utterly believable human tale can emerge on the strength of the characters, the love they portray, the empathy they evoke. It is here that the tale goes awry.

Ever since I read the jacket of the dvd case, I had wanted to like the movie. A movie about true love amongst the commonest of people in the strangest of situations, and their lifelong devotion to one another....I was ready to be sucked into their world, their love. However, Snehamoy's character of a timid, school teacher didn't ring true in its portrayal by an otherwise brilliant performer, Rahul Bose. I failed to see how the intelligent actor could have gotten the mannerisms, the dialogue and its delivery right and then stretched everything to the point of theatrics. The broken Bengali toned English was jarring. It sounded fake as did the exaggeratedly slow body movements and mannerisms hinting at a meek and socially inept person. The natural flow of body language was sorely missing.

When the central character rings a false tone, we lose the movie, especially a character driven human tale. We stop caring. Even though I sympathized with the characters over their heartbreaking circumstances of separation though life, I knew I couldn't love them, one badly enacted and the other rarely seen, with no insight to her sufferings and misery in this life of separation from a loved one.

There are several redeeming factors though. The highlight of the tale is a bravura performance by Chatterjee in the role of Snehamoy's aunt. She is pitch perfect as the loud mouth, yet golden hearted aunt who feels for her nephew's self made solitude, accepts a marriage such as his and yet wonders at the practicality of it all. Raima Sen as the widow, who is left alone too early with desires still beating inside her, is accurate in her portrayal, letting her beautiful eyes do all the talking and grieving.

Having followed prolific filmmaker Aparna Sen's career through the decades, witnessing each of her work, be it in English or Bengali, I have found her to be erratic in her efforts. While she has made award winning movies, the likes of  36 Chowringhee Lane, Paroma, Paromitar Ek Din, Mr & Mrs Iyer, which will go down in the annals of important films from India especially Bengal, she has also given us movies that have been major disappointments, not because they are so bad but that we have come to expect such quality from her.

Aparna Sen tries in this movie. The slow paced lethargy of the film beautifully captures the essence of rural life. The focus is on capturing the small moments of life, as these are not characters  prone to grandiose, they are ordinary and their ordinariness is relatable. The Ayurvedic doctor, the village shopkeeper, the lonely widow, even Snehamoy are all people we might encounter. It is her inability to extract reality in her lead performer's portrayal of Snehamoy, which lets her down. It also does not help that the story is too one note.

I wanted to be privy to the widow's world, the relationship that might have been between two lonely people. There is one scene that scratches the surfaces beautifully. I wanted some more and their possible outcome. It is all very well to love in letters, but theirs must have been a frustrating life. A letter wont comfort when one is alone, it cant replace a hug, a physical presence. But I digress. That would have made for another beautiful tale of the complexities of the human heart. And yet this is a sweet, simplistic story that never quite connected with me. I sighed for the movie it could have been and the performance which might have redeemed it.

Available on DVD
In English and Bengali with English subtitles

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