On rare occasions, I break with my policy of reviewing only Hindi movies, and instead review a movie in another Indian language. I recently watched The Japanese Wife — which features dialog in English, Japanese and Bengali — because it will be featured on October 3rd at Chicago’s inaugural South Asian Film Festival. Also, it’s directed by Aparna Sen, mother of Bollywood actress Konkona Sen Sharma. Since the movie is already available on DVD at Netflix, I thought I’d give it a shot.
The DVD’s menu screen describes the movie as “A Love Poem by Aparna Sen,” and that seems appropriate. It’s a heartbreakingly romantic film about the lengths we go to on behalf of those we love and how the written word brings us closer together.
Rahul Bose stars as Snehamoy, a high school arithmetic teacher in a small, remote village in West Bengal. He lives with an aunt who raised him after his parents drowned when he was a boy. He’s unbearably shy and has only one close friend: Miyage (Chigusa Takaku), his Japanese pen pal. She’s just as shy and lives with her ailing mother. They write letters to each other in imperfect English every week.
Scenes from the present — a giant package from Japan making its way through Snehamoy’s village to his house — are intercut with voiceovers and scenes cataloging how the friendship between Snehamoy and Miyage develops through their letters.
After three years of correspondence, Snehamoy writes to Miyage about his aunt’s attempt to find a bride for him. The girl, Sandhya (Raima Sen), is so timid she won’t even let Snehamoy see her face. He turns down the marriage, and Sandhya weds another man.
Miyage proposes that she and Snehamoy get married, even though they’ve never met and have no prospect of doing so in the near future. She has to take care of her mother, and his monthly $100 salary isn’t enough to afford an expensive plane ticket to Japan. But they agree to get married anyway. She sends him a silver ring, and he sends her some coral bangles and vermillion powder to wear in the part of her hair, signifying their status.
Several years later, widowed Sandhya and her son, Poltu (Sagnik Chowdhury), move in with Snehamoy and his aunt. Sandhya becomes Snehamoy’s unofficial wife, in practice: she cooks and cleans, and he escorts her shopping and helps her raise Poltu. She’s at least physically present, while Miyage remains in Japan.
The movie raises questions about the definition of marriage. Can Snehamoy and Miyage really be married without having ever met? And what of Snehamoy’s relationship with Sandhya? They actively build a life together with some degree of mutual affection. Which “marriage” is more real?
The movie unfolds beautifully as the love between Snehamoy and Miyage is revealed through their words. Because English isn’t either of their native languages, they write honestly and without euphemisms. The musical score alternates between traditional Indian and Japanese harmonies.
Probably the most striking aspect of the movie is the contrast between their places of residence. Snehamoy lives in a small village with no electricity that’s only accessible by boat. I wasn’t sure in which decade the movie was set until he journeyed to a big city and mentioned that he had Miyage’s email address.
Yet it makes complete sense that Miyage, living in a big city in Japan, could fall for Snehamoy. One can be lonely and isolated even in a crowded place.