Despatch from Tokyo | International

The Indian who made a Japanese movie

Chauhan’s film, Bad Poetry Tokyo, won several global awards, including Grand Prize at Brussels

Bad Poetry Tokyo, a small-budget Japanese film, has been the darling of the international film festival circuit since 2018, winning a slew of prizes. Featuring the greatest hits of cinema vérité — sex, violence, emotional trauma, all filmed with a handheld camera — at first glance it’s a standard art house movie. But there is a plot twist. The director, Anshul Chauhan, is a young Indian man with no film background and only a smattering of Japanese.

Mr. Chauhan was born in 1986 in a small town called Mainpuri, near Agra, and was destined for the Army. His father was a soldier and a strict disciplinarian, who brooked no dissent, packing off his son to a military school in Rajasthan as soon as he was old enough to go. Bullied by teachers and senior students, Mr. Chauhan detested school and ran away several times. At university, the young man defied his father to study geography.

He recalls how everything changed for him one day in 2004 following a chance encounter on a train. Returning home from an entrance exam for a Masters degree in Geo-informatics, Mr. Chauhan struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller who introduced himself as an animator.

He was immediately intrigued and spent the next few years training himself in animation, eventually working at studios in Bengaluru and Pune. In 2011, Mr. Chauhan overheard colleagues talking about a studio, Polygon Pictures, in Japan that was hiring Indians. A few months later, he was on a plane to Tokyo, to start a job as an animator. It was well paid and steady. And even his father finally seemed reconciled to his life choices.

But this being Mr. Chauhan, the whimsy and ambition were unstoppable. In 2013, he woke up one day with a strong, somewhat inexplicable, desire to make a movie. He bought a camera and made a few shorts. Eventually, he quit his job to focus on film-making full time, but had to rejoin a few months later having gone through all his savings. Yet, what he describes as the “movie bug” kept gnawing at him, and in 2017, he left his job yet again to make Bad Poetry Tokyo. It was his first feature-length film, and was shot over four weeks in May, paid for with his slim savings. Locations and actors were found via Facebook.

International recognition

By this time, Mr. Chauhan was married to his long-term Japanese girlfriend, Mina, who acted as translator, reworking the script he had written into Japanese. The cast was largely bilingual, which helped the newly minted director achieve his vision with conviction, despite the cultural barriers. Against the odds, the movie won the Grand Prize at the Brussels International Independent Film Festival. This was followed by a best actress award at the Osaka Asian Films Festival and the prize for best narrative feature film at the Venice Film Week.

Mr. Chauhan was hopeful that the awards would help him secure a commercial release for the movie in Japan but every distributor he approached turned him away. He is reluctant to outright ascribe this refusal to racism. “It was confusing for them. What is an Indian doing making a Japanese movie? No one could understand,” he said. Mr. Chauhan’s explanation to them was simple. “I live in Japan, so I make a movie here. What can be more normal?”

It took two years for Bad Poetry Tokyo to finally see the light of day in its “home” country. Bypassing the distributors, who seemed intent on ignoring him, Mr. Chauhan eventually took a DVD copy of the film directly to a large theatre owner, who was so impressed that he wrote Mr. Chauhan a recommendation letter guaranteeing a screening for the movie at his theatres. It worked.

Mr. Chauhan was finally able to get his film released in Tokyo in January 2020. The Japan Times reviewer was clearly impressed. “Set in the quiet Japanese countryside, but full of unquiet emotions... without Chauhan’s name on the credits, I never would have guessed Bad Poetry Tokyo was by a non-Japanese,” the review raved. Bad Poetry Tokyo was also scheduled for release in the cities of Yokohama and Nagano. Unfortunately the showings coincided with lockdowns due to the spread of COVID-19. “Only five people showed up at the theatre in Yokohama,” said Mr. Chauhan ruefully.

But the film-maker remains undaunted. He has already completed filming his next feature titled Kontora, about a young Japanese girl who chances upon her grandfather’s diary written during the Second World War. And he is now figuring out the path to his next goal — a Hindi movie with a Japanese connect.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo)

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 6:23:56 PM |

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