By Shamain Nisar
Aparna Sen is a Bengali director, scriptwriter and actress who comes from a family with a rich artistic background. Initially beginning her career in acting, Sen moved on to writing and directing. Though she has been selective in her choices and has made relatively few films, the list of her work, however small, includes masterpieces like 36 Chowringhee Lane, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and my personal favorite, The Japanese Wife.
The Japanese Wife is a 2010 movie based on a short story written by Kunal Basu. The story revolves around Snehmoy (played by Rahul Bose), a school teacher living with his aunt in a Bengali village, who befriends a Japanese woman, Miyage (played by Chigusa Takaku) through an exchange of letters. Their friendship, limited to this letter exchange from a material, physical standpoint but not from an emotional one, lasts over the course of 17 years, gradually turning into love and leading the two to get married to each other through their letters. Also an important part of the story is a widow named Sandhya who, along with her son, comes to live with Snehmoy and his aunt. In a natural turn of events the aunt wishes Snehmoy to marry Sandhya, and the development of a subtle yet evident chemistry between the two doesn’t make this wish seem too implausible. However, through the temptations and tough times, such as Miyage’s inability to come live with Snehmoy because she must care for her old mother, and later on, because of her own fight with cancer, the couple remains loyal to each other until Snehmoys death, while not meeting even once.
The film, covering over 17 years worth of story, is slow paced, without being dull or monotonous. Instead, the pace of the film matches the slow moving village life and the stillness of the lives of its people, while vibrating at times with the depiction of rare moments of life and color (like the kite flying festival).
Rahul Bose’s performance in the film felt surprising and refreshing. Although he has, in recent years, transitioned to become a mainstream actor, I have never appreciated his commercial work as much as his performance as the introverted, quiet Bengali teacher in The Japanese Wife. On the other hand, while Raima Sen did a good job of playing Sandhya, I would have preferred to see Konkona Sen Sharma (the first casting choice) play this part, as I think her versatility would have made a great difference in the portrayal of the character.
The film can be classified as a romance, but what makes it different from a typical romance is that its passion lies in its understatedness. It is pure and selfless in its nature. The relationships between the characters have a natural flow to them; they seem very real and personal, which makes the characters and story very relatable.
I think Aparna Sen has excelled not only in directing but also in adapting the original story into the film’s screenplay. She manages to present the stark differences and at the same time, the similarities in the lives of two people who exist in very contrasting circumstances, tenderly depicting the way in which people living worlds apart from one another can understand each another more deeply than anyone in their immediate surroundings could.
The film has a melancholic beauty to it, carried in every scene by the ever-present longing of the couple and escalating in the final sequence when a widowed Miyage, clad in white sari, sporting a bald head (a Bengali practice for widowed women) finally comes to Bengal to be greeted by Sandhya. The Japanese Wife is an excellent example of “less is more”, of pure human emotions replacing glamour and flair, and a great recommendation to anyone who hasn’t yet given Indian and Bengali art cinema a chance, because it is sure to win you over.