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Poetic defiance

After years in the making, The Japanese Wife is finally out. Soma Basu meets the cast to find out what gives the film a simplistic feel, like a Japanese painting

I am scared of everything, I am scared of what I saw, I am scared of what I did, who I am, and most important of all, I am scared of walking out of this room and never feel the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I am with you.
~ Baby in Dirty Dancing

These are perhaps some of the most romantic lines ever uttered in the history of cinema. Snehamoy, a teacher of mathematics in a school in the Sunderbans, and Miyage, a shopkeeper in the suburbs of Japan stay married for 17 years. And, in these years they communicate through four phone calls and 637 letters written in imperfect English. They have never met. Yet, the school-master is so hopelessly in love with his Japanese wife that no other woman, even a young widow staying at his place, has any identity for him. That’s Kunal Basu’s book, The Japanese Wife.
Rahul Bose strips off his urban, metrosexual look to become Snehamoy, Japanese actress Chikusa Takaku working in an Indian movie for the first time, is the Japanese wife, Raima Sen who drapes herself in white to become Sandhya, the widow, Mousumi Chatterjee makes an eventful comeback to the silver screen as Mashi and the varied colours of Sunderbans and Japan infuse the text. That’s the cast for Aparna Sen’s movie The Japanese Wife.
“I wanted to make a film that would remind you of a Japanese watercolour painting. In Japanese paintings you have these minimalist lines ~ just one line expresses a lot. I love that kind of economy. I dislike saying too much; you must have seen that in most of my films,” says Aparna Sen, director of a movie that she calls a love poem.
“These days love stories tend to become mundane. So, if there is nothing special in it, it wouldn’t appeal. The greatest of romantic movies have been made with the backdrop of war, riot or some kind of conflict. I’ve used this in Mr and Mrs Iyer as well. In The Japanese Wife distance plays quite an imposing role. People should be able to relate to the story since we see so many long-distance relationships. We have seen people falling in love through Facebook and e-mail. Here Snehamoy and Miyage fall in love through letters.”
It doesn’t end here. Aparna says, “The Japanese Wife is also a very funny film. A man such as Snehamoy who has nothing unusual in his life, nothing abnormal, has one thing that makes him different from others. He has a Japanese wife whom he has never seen. Isn’t that funny? Yet, her letters and gifts are treasured by him and are keepsakes of their relationship. It’s not boisterous, yet there is a subtle strain of humour throughout the movie.”
The duo of Rahul-Aparna is synonymous with good cinema. “After two films together, there is a bond between us. He knows what I want. And his dedication is incomparable. His transformation into Snehamoy is amazing. He went to the Sunderbans alone and interacted with the local people there to get in under the skin of the character,” says Aparna.
The crew recounts quite a few memorable incidents on the sets of the film. While shooting in Japan was very expensive, the Sunderbans posed challenges as unique as it is. Rahul said the room he was staying had just about enough space for a single bed. “At night there were more than 200 kinds of insects. Roaches looked like scorpions. However, I don’t think they were that! Every morning I would find the top of my mosquito net caving in with a mould of dead insects. And then one day, there was a lightening storm on the river and soon our boat was just like a straw. We were quite scared at that point of time.”
Mousumi Chatterjee is seen after a decade. She plays the role of Snehamoy’s aunt who tries to get Snehamoy and Sandhya married. “I had three very shy people on the sets ~ Rahul, Raima and Chikusa. And I have Mousumi who has such a wonderful comic timing,” says Aparna.
When Aparna Sen decided to make The Japanese Wife the book wasn’t out but it had been written way back in 1996. Aparna and Kunal were discussing a script for a different movie and during coffee break Aparna heard about The Japanese Wife. A thousand images instantly rushed into her mind and she wanted to make a movie based on the story. And so Aparna got Kunal to bring out his short stories from his desk drawer and work on them. Kunal wrote three new stories for the collection. The other nine were written at different times.
“I told Kunal to keep the story for me since finding money for such a film was difficult. I haven’t changed the story a bit. While writing the screenplay I was in constant touch with Kunal. So, the process was quite collaborative. The story has become mine. There was no need of changes in any part of the script. It’s hardly 15 pages long. There were seeds… I just had to flesh them out.” says Aparna.
However, there were a couple of places where the movie does draw a line. Aparna has given a name, Sandhya, to the character that Kunal has always referred to as “the widow”. Aparna explains, “Kunal had probably never named the widow since he wanted to show that Snehamoy refuses to accept any other woman’s existence around him. But over time, there was a suggestion of a bond between the two. So, I gave my character a name.”
The film took a lot of time to come out because of the re-editing process. Aparna says that the camera work is the strength of the film. She had seen Anay Goswamy’s diploma films and that’s how she had taken him and he has indeed done a marvellous job. For music, Konkona Sen suggested Sagar Desai. Initially Aparna was not sure and she showed him a couple of stills from the movie. Sagar made a piece which was Japanese but had tabla in it. It clicked.
The crew spent only five days in Japan but the gifts that the Japanese wife sends Snehamoy give glimpses of Japanese art and culture. For example, she sends him a big box of kites.
The Japanese actress, Chikusa Takaku, had to communicate with the crew through an interpreter. “She is such a sensitive actress that half way through the interpretations, she would understand what I was trying to say. She has a very vulnerable face and that is what I needed for the movie,” says Aparna.
Rahul Bose says that he is jealous of Raima and Mousumi as they have acted very well in the film. He also feels that for making a quality film, big money is needed. “The Japanese Wife is the most splendid film of my life,” says the actor, who is all praises for the director. “We fought on various issues but that comes from an authority born out of immense respect I have for Aparna Sen.”
Sen’s next movie, Iti Mrinalini, is expected to be released in June. In Iti Mrinalini, Aparna and Konkona are playing the same character. “As an actress, I would like to state that Iti Mrinalini is not the story of my life, either as an actress, or a woman per se, or a director. I decided to play the older woman because we needed a resemblance between the younger and the older Mrinalini. Generally, I do not like to act in my films. Konkona and I have a somewhat similar body language, manner of speech and carry ourselves in more or less the same way. We play the same character… distanced by age. So, these resemblances were necessary.” After The Japanese Wife and Iti Mrinalini, it’s Goynar Baksho. For now, The Japanese Wife, the love poem, is certainly another jewel in Aparna Sen’s kitty.

(The Japanese Wife, presented by Saregama, has been directed by Aparna Sen and stars Rahul Bose, Raima Sen and Moushumi Chatterjee)

Soma Basu

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