Today I watched the film called The Japanese Wife. This film had some it of shot in Japan, but it is not a Japanese film. This was, surprisingly, a film directed by Indian film director Aparna Sen. Before becoming a director, Sen was a noted film actress in India.
The story’s lead character is a school teacher named Snehamoy Chatterjee. He is located in the Sundarbans area of West Bengal, India. His home is in a remote area mostly noted for being the largest tiger refuge in the world as well as the world’s largest tidal mangrove forest. His life is lonely. His parents were killed in a flood when he was a boy, and he has been raised by his maternal aunt. The role of Snehamoy was played by Indian actor Rahul Bose.
One day, he finds an advert for pen-pals in a magazine. On a whim, he writes to this Japanese woman named Miyage. She’s also lonely. She runs a shop out of her home with her ailing mother. She is painfully shy, and hasn’t any friends, nor has she ever been in love. Her role is played by the Japanese actress Chigusa Takaku.
Their relationship begins with a series of letters written in English with both of the using a dictionary. These are narrated (in English) in part by both Snehamoy and Miyage. From these letters, the bonds of love emerge. In fact, via letters, they exchange vows, and considered themselves married. All without ever having a face to face meeting. Letters and an occasional phone conversation are the extent of their physical relationship.
The years pass. Their relationship and love deepens. Before you know it 15 years have passed. And they’ve still not met. Snehamoy’s earnings as a school teacher are meager. A trip to Japan is beyond his means. Miyage is also poor plus she has the responsibility of caring for her elderly and ailing mother.
There is a complication – a young Indian widow with her eight year old son are taken in by Snehamoy’s Aunt. This widow named Sandhya (portrayed by Raina Sen) is also painfully shy. Years back, Aunt Mashi had tried to set up Sandhya and Snehamoy. But he wanted no part of her as he was committed to Miyage, his then pen pal who would later become his wife.
It is a simple story, beautifully filmed, and quite involving. It raises questions for you to consider. Without a physical relationship can your relationship be called love?
Can a relationship anchored only by letters create an unbreakable bond?
The story unwinds slowly. The film is just 100 minutes long, but the element of time isn’t a factor. Nor is this a Bollywood musical. The leads do not suddenly break into a song in a lush alpine valley. Here the settings are realistic and rustic, while the local people seem so very real as in un-actorly. Because of our unfamiliarity with them, as actors we recognize (I’ve seen Bose in just one other film) you do not have preconceived notions about any of the actors and actresses. Nor is this a story often told.
The film has mostly English, with some Japanese, and some Bangla, which is the regional language in this part of Bengal. Aparna Sen has woven this simple story into a memorable visual tapestry. While the basic premise of the story – falling in love for years – while having only a written relationship is unbelievable itself, there’s no doubt that the questions that this film raises will resonate with you for some time.