Up till now I have concentrated pretty much on films from South-east Asia, but I am aware of the cinema of the Sub-Continent also. Even though I probably know more people of Indian Origin than any other ethnicity, my explorations into the second largest Film Industry in the world has been muted at best. The odd subtitled movie when stuck in some far-flung Hotel Room, or maybe even twenty minutes when I scroll down to the bottom of my Digital TV Programme Guide. Frankly most of the output of Bollywood just does not appeal – the films are too long, and pretty much everyone seems to have the urge to spring a Song-&-Dance Number on me at least once. But, this one attracted my interest for a couple of reasons – firstly, it is in Bengali (as opposed to the normal Bollywood Hindi), and more obviously, the subject matter meant that it might just fit into the more oriental persuasions of my blog.
The Japanese Wife” tells us the story of Snehamoy (Rahul Bose), a poor Village Schoolteacher from the West Bengal Region of India. He is a painfully shy man, an orphan who lives with his Aunt. He starts up an old fashioned penpal relationship with a young Japanese Girl, Miyage (Chigusa Takaku). They write letters to each other regularly, and a bond forms. When The Aunt (Moushumi Chatterjee) starts to introduce Snehamoy to a young woman called Sandhya (Raima Sen) with the intention of marriage, this prompts Miyage to ask Snehamoy to become her Husband – even though they have never met, and frankly are unlikely to. He accepts, and their relationship continues for the next 15 years, and is even accepted by his fellow villagers. However, difficulties arise when Miyage falls ill, and Sandhya returns to his life as a Widowed mother. Can the unusual relationship survive all these brickbats? Can true love exist in such an unconventional format?
I have a feeling there are going to be three issues that the casual viewer is going to have with this film:
1) I will deal with the Elephant in the room first. The plot is kind of rather ridiculous. Or as ridiculous as you want it to be. Because Snehamoy really does live in a terribly remote area – there is no electricity, no computers, no internet. Even a telephone call will involve a visit to a nearby town and the use of a 3rd party. Whilst their initial contact is not truly explained (I think it was done via a magazine), I actually can believe that two terribly lonely people could meet in this way, and find that using letters to be a way they can communicate with each other. In fact I am sure some married couples could probably benefit from this.
2) I mentioned up front that the film is in Bengali. Actually this is only party true. Whilst a good 25% of the film is indeed in Bengali, the rest is actually in English – with Snehamoy and Miyage narrating their letters to each other. As English is neither of their first language, this presents a level of awkwardness as a listener – but also means that the actually words between the two has a refreshing honesty, not hidden behind flowery phrases, never complicated by metaphor.
3) Its not much longer than 100 minutes long, but the pace is languid. There is no action (other than a Kite Fight), and our main characters never even meet. Yet I found the film beguiling and beautiful. I was actually surprised how beautifully shot the film was, with both wonderful glimpses into the Bengali traditional way of life, along with some brilliant dramatic moments reminiscent of 1950’s American Melodramas.
As you can see, I am apologising for it, as I really found myself enjoying this. Rahul Bose makes for an engaging lead – genuinely nice but painfully shy. The experienced Moushumi Chatterjee is actually brilliant, and steals every moment she is on screen. The films real star though is Raima Sen, who starts as a minor character, but grows as the film progresses into a threatening presence as “the other woman”. Chigusa Takaku does fine as her character, but as she only interacts physically with other cast members so very rarely, she has little more to offer than either look radiant or pained and suffering.
It is a lovely movie all round, as long as you can accept the basic premise. It asks all sorts of questions about love, and about the concepts of marriage (both love-based and arranged). It does not hold back, dealing with Snehamoy’s sexual frustration and his impotence in dealing with Miyage’s illness. It allows itself time to poke a little fun at the various different kinds of medical care available in India, and also uses the format to spread a little education about the Bengali way of life.
This one is Recommended, as long as you look at my three points above, and think you can handle it, I think you will have a great time with this film. Be warned though – bring a few tissues.