Milos Stehlik Reviews Indian Film That Bypasses Bollywood Stereotypes

October 1, 2010

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In his regular film commentary, Milos Stehlik of Facets Multi-media, reviews one of the films at the 2010 Chicago South Asian Film Festival, "The Japanese Wife", a film he thinks breaks stereotypes about India's film industry...

As the fate of the famed MGM Studios hangs in the balance, the most ardent of the suitors trying to buy the financially-struggling company is Sahara India Pariwar, an Indian conglomerate. But if Indian company, Tata Motors, can own the iconic automobile of James Bond, the all-British Jaguar - and the Land Rover, the SUV in which Elizabeth, Queen of England, transports her dogs, then why not an Indian-owned Hollywood dream factory?

The world's most prolific film industry is in India. We tend to sum up India's film image into Bollywood song-and-dance movies. In reality, Indian cinema is many cinemas, in many languages, at odds to reach varied audiences. It has a massive star system and an equally massive number of fans. These audiences include not only the many linguistic groups of India, but audiences in many parts of Asia and the Middle East, where Indian films dominate the box office. More recently, the Indian film industry has set its sights on the global market. The charm of many Indian commercial films is a kind of narrative shorthand which connects to very diverse audiences through universal emotions, as opposed to many American studio films that strive for a global connection through frenzy-paced violence.

Apurna Serna's film, THE JAPANESE WIFE is one of these strange Indian hybrids. It's made by talented Bengali filmmaker, screenwriter and actress, Serna who comes from a famous intellectual and filmmaking family. She was an actress in Satyajit Ray's film Three Daughters when she was just 16. Along with roles in Merchant-Ivory films like Bombay Talkie, her acting career encompassed both popular Bengali cinema and work with some of India's foremost directors like Mrinal Sen.

In the 1980s, Serna turned to directing. She wasn't afraid to tackle difficult themes, like 36 Chowringhee Lane, a film about an Anglo-Indian teacher in Calcutta, or Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, set against the background of violence between Muslims and Hindus in India.

THE JAPANESE WIFE is based on a short story by West Bengal writer Kinal Basu. Its main protagonist, Snehmoy, is a math teacher in a remote Bengali village who lives with his aunt. Snehmoy is a bit of an ingenuous country bumpkin. He begins a lifelong correspondence with a Japanese pen pal named Miyage. Both lonely individuals, they soon exchange wedding vows through letters, remaining connected by post for 17 years. Framing this relationship is a young Bengali widow, Sandhya, who arrives with her 8-year-old son to live with Snehmoy and with his aunt.

Serna is not so much interested in either the cultural or psychological clash of these diverse characters as she is in the sheer melodramatic narrative arc of their inter-connected lives. The background is there – as in the obvious critique of social constraints placed on Indian widows. Reducing the emotional drama to its simplest elements to read like a beautifully-produced parable is Serna's main charge.

Films like THE JAPANESE WIFE are too-rooted in contemporary Indian popular culture to travel the often-conceited art film circuit and are too unwilling to give up their broad populist base for more artistic goals. Yet popularity is a relative term. THE JAPANESE WIFE leaving behind the song-and-dance extravaganzas of Bollywood is in itself an enormous leap. The film pace is slower - more leisurely. Despite over-dramatized situations, it strives for a reality that more reflects the lives of ordinary people. And though THE JAPANESE WIFE has a poetic, lyrical bent which may be too clichéd for our cynical eyes — it is still something fresh in the spectacle-driven Bollywood universe...

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ. His reviews air on Fridays.