India, April 8 -- The Japanese Wife Director: Aparna Sen Actors: Rahul Bose, Chigusa Takaku Rating: **
Be wary of the friend who passes off as opinion on a film, comments such as, "It's beautifully shot". Or, "The acting is awesome." Or, "The film's good, but kinda long (or slow)." What he unknowingly means to say is the story sucks.
Sen's The Japanese Wife is wonderfully shot, reasonably well enacted, and is sure enough, long (or slow) as hell. Such elements individually draw attention toward themselves because, quite frankly, the script sucks.
Spanning across almost two decades, Rahul Bose plays a graying schoolteacher in Sunderbans. He lives with his mother (Moushumi Chatterjee; crackling transformation) in rural Bengal - cinematic constructs of which have largely been made popular globally by Ray, Ghatak and several others after them. This quiet gent makes contact with a Japanese girl, a pen friend, in Yokohama. They have written-English in common, though neither can speak the language as fluently. Over years, they write to each other, and at some point, in one of those casual exchanges, even decide to turn man and wife. Bose's Snehamoy sends Ms Miyage (Takaku), "vermilion for the parting of the hair." Ms two-minute Miyage sends across various Japanese tourist memorabilia to decorate his room. Snehamoy in fact gradually builds for himself a fairly enviable collection of Japanese kites, which he takes once to the community festival. The kite-seller at that carnival feels threatened. He urges fellow villagers to turn the kite-flying competition into one between India and Japan: "Indian kites, zindabad. Japanese kites, murdabad." The chorus is infectious. Everyone joins in. The scene cuts into another group that again doesn't understand the meaning of a cry, but goes, "Workers of the world unite." The analogy is truly inspired.
You wish, so was the sub-text of this film. Where Snehamoy keeps his vows until old age, masturbating on a tilted boat. Sissy Miyage walks around aimlessly in her minka (free-standing Japanese home). He has no means to travel to Japan, and has "only one lavatory (in his house) - that too Indian (style)". She couldn't care less about the lavatory, or meeting ever for that matter. That isn't their relationship's point.
Omkara, the film, has by now reached television sets of Snehamoy's tiny hamlet. National news discusses Taslima Nasreen's deportation from Bengal. We're certainly way past the mid-2000s. Yet, cellphones, or SMS, or Internet chats in a nearby town, are technological novelties waiting to be discovered by sulky Snehamoy and his Ms Miyage. They continue to tuck sheets of paper into 'Par Avion': white envelopes with red and blue striped borders. This platonic romance bears neither poetry in those letters, nor cynicism among friends, relatives or neighbours. It's turned into marriage, and still carries on for its own sake through snail mails, sickness, and good health.
If I'm not mistaken, this is Sen's (36 Chowringhee Lane) first screenplay adaptation (from a short story by Kunal Basu). It shows. The realism and connect of her films is entirely missing here. In a fairly prolific 30-film career, it is Sen alone who's managed to use Bose best (Mr And Mrs Iyer, 15 Park Avenue). This one's no exception at all, and could well be Bose's best work. It doesn't quite bode well for both. The film remains at best an affected bore.