The Japanese Wife turns 10: Aparna Sen's film addressed repressed sexuality, patriarchal customs, and communalism
The Japanese Wife is Aparna Sen's version of an epic romance about a Bengali arithmetic teacher and a Japanese shopowner.
"You know Miyage, in my whole life, I am never being able to talk to anyone as I am talking to you."
There's a word in Japanese — kenzoku — which loosely translates to a profound bond equivalent to that of blood – unlikely kinship. Through broken English sentences and dreamy origamis, Aparna Sen created an achingly melancholic ode to kenzoku in The Japanese Wife, that released 10 years ago today on 9 April.
Based on Kunal Basu's short story of the same name, The Japanese Wife narrates the continent-spanning romance of two pen pals — Snehamoy (Rahul Bose), a meek-mannered Arithmetic teacher, and Miyage (Chigusa Takaku), an introverted Japanese shopowner. Having lived many years ensconced in his shell, Snehamoy finds a confidante in Miyage. His letters to Miyage become a window to his soul, where he can express his most intimate fears and his private musings without the fear of being dismissed as whimsical.
Snehamoy's life takes an unexpected turn when a young widow Sandhya (Raima Sen), accompanied by his nine-year-old son Poltu, comes to live with Snehamoy and his aunt (Moushumi Chatterji).
Arguably, much of the focus in the film is laid on how Snehamoy and Miyage sustain a 17-year-old relationship without ever physically meeting each other. However, The Japanese Wife is not just a swooning romantic drama.
It's about co-dependence, friendship and kindness — between Snehamoy and Sandhya, Snehamoy and Poltu and Sandhya and Miyage. But Sen didn't resort to verbose monologues to tell her story. In fact, The Japanese Wife thrives on its silences, closeted feelings, and stolen glances.
The film itself is like an extended metaphor for Sandhya's repressed sexuality and stoicism. Having long suffered in her in-laws' house, she has now internalised subjugation. She hides her face in her dupatta, treads softly, and performs all household chores in silence — as if petrified to make her person felt, lest society may consider her to be a burden. She is attracted to Snehamoy but is pragmatic enough about her situation to not act on it. Similarly, Snehamoy also feels a responsibility towards Sandhya and her son, fostering a family he never had, a family that he craved for with Miyage.
To further the divide between Snehamoy and Miyage, the filmmaker set Snehamoy's village in the Sunderbans. Cut off from the urban pockets by the raging Matla river, his hamlet is like a time capsule, unadulterated by the technological boom engulfing the country. On the other hand, Japan becomes a product of Snehamoy's vivid imagination. As opposed to the perennially soggy Sunderbans, Japan is like the Washi papers Miyage wraps her gifts in — sunny, luscious, and saturated with blush-coloured cherry blossoms that are laced against the aquamarine sky.
But it is to the credit of the auteur that despite its innocuous appearance, The Japanese Wife tackles complex themes of sexism and communalism. Dawdling and leisurely in pace, The Japanese Wife is Sen's subtle yet acrid jibe on patriarchy.
Through Snehamoy, Sen dismantles the idea of hyper-masculine heroes that populate the celluloid. In a world where popular films celebrate the gallantry of men for letting women occupy the frontlines (Mission Mangal, Padman); or where singular movies are still made on the pointlessness of ascribing gender-specific roles (Ki and Ka), Sen effortlessly slips in her feminism without a shred of exhibitionism with the character of Snehamoy. Affectionate and accommodating, Snehamoy finds himself in a fix when Miyage proposes marriage to him. Indian customs dictate women leave their paternal houses after marriage and settle down in their in-laws' place. While he wants to unite with his wife, he recognises he does not have the means to travel to Japan. He also recognises an Indian-style toilet would not be very comfortable for his Japanese wife, and thus decides to honour their marriage through correspondence.
Similarly, Sen crafts an elaborate scene to showcase our deep-seated communal approach towards the kite festival. The ornate Japanese kites, which Miyage had gifted Snehamoy for their 15th marriage anniversary, is unboxed for the first time when Poltu urges him to participate in the kite-flying contest in their village. The locals, who had till then never seen such majestic beasts, are predictably amazed at their magnanimity. But the initial awe soon wears off as onlookers start cheering in unison, "Bharat er ghuri zindabad, Japan er ghuri murdabad." (All hail Indian kites, down with Japanese ones). Even as the crowd breaks into collective mayhem when a desi kite cuts off the string of his prized possession, a morose Poltu wonders what could have been the reason for such unwarranted hate.
Steeped in melancholy as it may, The Japanese Wife is a frail portrait of the kind of love only seen in the movies. Perhaps as epic in scope as a Veer-Zaara, only rooted in reality.
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