Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Japanese Wife


film by Aparna Sen, India: 2007-2010

to the memory of Kei Kumai (1. June 1930 - 23. May, 2007)

It was a quite unconventional marketing strategy which enabled me to see this film on DVD just a few weeks after its theatrical premiere in India.
There are films which are hard to find on big screens of my country. It is especially sad in the case of Aparna Sens films like Mr. and Mrs. Iyer or The Japanese Wife because these films seem to me made for the big screen but as well for the collective experience in a film theatre.
In such situations I use a trick. I dream myself into the architecture of the most beautiful film-theatres I once knew. Some of them are not existing anymore and others are changed into something different. That helps me to image like a film how The Japanese Wife would appear on a big screen.

One can love the films by Aparna Sen just because of its sophisticated cinematic storytelling. But after several times watching of these films they are also tight nets of many cinematic ideas and different narrative methods. Beside the things the films are telling about there are also hints to the cinematic reception itself.
Konkona Sen Sharma and Rahul Boses characters in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer are on one side fictive characters in a fiction film. But the characters situation in this fiction pushes them to a role of a married couple. That makes them as well visible as actors who perform for us.
Especially Rahul Bose as Raja, a photographer is someone who realises something and records it. Through his profession but as well through the fact he is condemned to a certain passivity he seems to me as a mid-man between the film and the audience.

Rahul Bose as Snehamoy an arithmetic teacher in a village of the impressing river landscape of the Sunderbans has a likely double function: as a figure in a fictive tale but also as someone who imagines a person through letters, photographs and a few phone calls. He never meets this person physically like the spectator who never will meet the characters of this film. Snehamoy is also someone whom is told something, the story of another life which he compares with own reflections and own experiences.

The main plot tells about the long relation ship between the Bengali Snehamoy and the Japanese woman Miyage. For financial and family reasons they are never able to meet each other in person. Their relationship is nourished only by an intense exchange of letters, pictures, gifts and a few phone calls. Finally this pen friendship turns even into a marriage. She sends him a ring with her name imprinted and he sends her bangles and red colour for her hair (the Hindu sign for a married woman).

Like in her earlier films like Yugant (What the Sea said, 1995) or Paromitar Ek Din (House of Memories, 2000) Aparna Sen works at the beginning of The Japanese Wife with changing the perspective between past and present.

We see Snehamoy in the first shot talking with Miyage on the phone. It is the last phone call with Miyage. They have problems problems with communication (they talk English) and finally the line fails. That is as well an introduction into an almost musical repeated theme which is varied sometimes funny and sometimes sad. It reminds me in the theme of the always-drunken father in Ozus last film Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962) which is varied at the beginning with a lot of humour and at the end with deep melancholia. At all Aparna Sen works here with a lot repeated themes which are always varied.

We follow a big wooden package on its way from a container station to a ferry and finally on a riksha to the house Snehamoy lives in. For a short while the film jumps between the past (Snehamoy and Miyage are reciting their early letters) and the present of the package which finally reaches Snehamoy. The package is a gift from Miyage for the 15th. anniversary of their marriage.

The films narration jumps again into the past and through letters (over voice) and short vignettes it introduces the relationship of them and some persons which will become important for the film.
Snehamoy is an orphan since his childhood. His parents were killed by a flood. He is raised by his aunt whom is called by him affectionately "Mashi"
And Mashi (Moushumi Chatterjee) lives alone and has no children. She might even be a widow. During this flashbacks there appears another person who will disappear from the narration for a while and reappears as an important figure in the film. It is the young girl Sandhya (Raima Sen) the daughter of Mashis best friend and the aunt´s god child. Mashi intended to marry her with Snehamoy but he is already married with Miyage.
We learn about Snehamoy more than what is told in his letters while Miyage is only present in short scenes which take place in Japan and in her letters. She is half an orphan and lives with her sick mother and she is as as introverted like Snehamoy. The scenes with Miyage appear as well as imaginations of Snehamoy. Miyages Japan appears as engrossed
Sometimes we see Snehamoy sitting by the river while we hear his voice reciting a letter to Miyage. We feel how he compares Miyages experiences with his own ones. And he looks into the wide landscape like a character in a film by John Ford or a figure in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The fact that is is not always accurate in his images of Miyage is a source of comic, tragic comical and finally tragic events.

When the film closes its flashbacks all important persons are introduced. There are some episodes unusually funny for a film by Aparna Sen. And Snehamoys marriage with a far distant foreigner is a source of mock by the villagers and affectionate teasings by his aunt.

Around the middle of the film there is a competition in kite flying, a moment which seems to be floating over the narration's gravitation and is like an intermission in the story. The skillfulness of the men who make an effort to control their slight paper kites through tangling twines is also an image for Aparna Sens virtuosity in handling different formal and narrative elements.

In-between Sandhya returns to the film ´s narration. She is now a widow and has a nine years old son called Paltu. The relatives of her late husband refuse to deal with a widow with a child.

The characters are what they are but at the same time they appear how each of them imagine the others. That includes also Snehamoys feelings for Miyage. The feeling is genuine but the distance between them leaves space for projection.
The film tells about the life of its characters but as as well of their longings for a life they are not able to live.
Mashi has in Sandhya an imagined daughter, with Snehamoy an imagined son and with Palto a grandson while just Miyage remains for her a kind of abstract. 36 Chowinghee lane (1981), Paraoma (1985), Sati (1989), Yugant (1995) or 15 Park Avenue (2005) dealt in different kinds with almost hopeless isolated women. What the lonely characters in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer or The Japanese Wife let them appear less desparate than in Aparna Sens earlier mostly deep sad films is their ability to imagine or longing for a happier life in a companionship. Meenakshi and Raja in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer are not really experiencing a romance but they are allowed to dream about things they can not live in reality. The characters in The Japanese Wife like Sandhya for example are outsiders but under Mashis care they experience affection and fellowship. There is even a hint that Sandhya falls in love with Snehamoy but it is never mentioned in words.
Maschis affection for Sandhya is as well a reflection of her own fate. The same with Snehamoys affection for Paltu. Like in the bus scene in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer here are as well correspondences between different times of a human life through which the characters define their relationships with each other.

Snehamoy learns that Miyage is seriously ill and that she lost her mother. This situation causes comic and tragic episodes.
Snehamoy consults an Ayurveda physician, a homeopath and a friend who runs a pharmacy for getting diagnosis or medicine he can send to Miyage. His absurd alacrity to get her healed without even knowing the exact disease is touching and funny at the same time. There is again a phone call which tells for the last time in a comical way about their difficulties to communicate with each other in spoken words.
When Snehamoy finally learns that Miyage has cancer the humour of the film disappears like sunlight behind clouds.

Unforgettable remains for me the Snehamoys travel to Kolkata for consulting a cancer specialist recommended to him by his friend the apothecary. While the medicine watches anxious the diagnosis of Miyages disease he asks for Miyage in person. It seems Snehamoy becomes aware of Miyages absence and probably aware of the hopelessness to help her from here. Suddenly Rahul Boses face changes like the weather in this film (A heavy storm is raising). His face shows an idea of resignation. There is again a phone call between him and Miyage. A likely situation which made me laughing aloud in earlier scenes becomes now one of the saddest moments of the film. While he phones the storm is getting more intense with blizzards and thunder. The effort to keep up a relationship over a far distance and in a language strange to both of them is now obvious. The kind Bose is struggling with tears let him become again the little boy who lost his parents during a likely storm. And when finally the line fails again Snehamoy becomes a close relative to the lonely persons who populate Aparna Sens earlier films. During his way home in the middle of the storm he appears as a lost soul. At home the local doctor declares that Snehamoy suffers under pneumonia. The ferry service is out of work because of the storm and the medicine can´t be approached. Like an helpless child Snehamoy lays in the bed. bed. Sandhya nurses him and cools off his feverish head. In his feverish delirium he calls the name of Miyage while Sandhya is nursing him.
In this moment Sandhya appears as another tragic character in this film. He who is going to die and she who is already not existing anymore in the mind of the dying.

A cut and we see Paltu playing on the veranda. The weather is more friendly and promises hope which will be disappointed. Than - another cut to Snehamoys room. We see Mashi crying on Snehamoys empty bed. Another woman is present and another one consoles the mourning Mashi. Two other women (friends or neighbours are standing in from of the entrance. Sandhya sits in the door frame exhausted and tired. Snehamoys death fragmented this family like fellowship again into lonely individuals. Just this image (which reminds me again in John Ford) is an excellent example of Aparna Sens visual thinking.

As the film tells about widows and orphans the epilogue focuses on two widows. We see Miyage (whose head is shaved in the tradition of Hindu-widows devoted to their late husband) taking the same way of the big package at the beginning of the film: on the ferry and finally on a rickshaw to the house Snehamoy lived in. Sandhya the other widow who lost the second time someone awaits her. This almost wordless encounter leads the film to its calm final point. How those women are entering the room of the dead in which letters, photographs and accessories appear as crystallised traces of a human life. It is a quite echo of the grieve which connects the two women. There is an unspoken solidarity like between the young Paromita and the dying Sarnaka in Aparna Sens Paromitar Ek Din.

What shall I say more about the film which is with Mr. and Mrs. Iyer my dearest one by Aparna Sen without using a cheap and quick superlative.
Yes, I have lived in and with this film for a while.

Rüdiger Tomczak

(provisorily translation from the German text which will be published in shomingeki No. 23, January 2011)

Here is the german version


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