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Mira Nair transforms Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake into an intimate visual experience as we follow the Ganguli family's complex and ever-evolving relationships over a span of thirty years.
Fans of the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri will be happy to know that director Mira Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala were, for the most part, very faithful while crafting the film version of The Namesake. A challenging task, as Lahiri is known for her richly detailed descriptions, but the result is heartfelt, as Nair vividly brings the streets of New York and Calcutta to life and the actors' truthful performances draw us in, delicately conveying the complexities beneath the surface through looks and demeanor instead of words.
The inspiration for The Namesake is based on Lahiri's observation that the one's birth name, the most prominent way we are defined, is ironically the part of our identity that we don't get to choose for ourselves. In Bengali families, often babies are given two names -- a "good" name (a formal name that is used in public) and a "pet" name (which is used within the comforts of family and loved ones). This becomes a metaphor for the many dualities that come with both being an immigrant, with a second home in one's heart, as well as being an American growing up in a culture and perspective that's very different from your parents'.
The "namesake" in question refers to Kal Penn's character: his "pet" name Gogol (derived from Nikolai Gogol, his father's favorite author) inadvertantly becomes his "good" name, and he gradually comes to despise it -- especially when, as a teenager, he realizes Gogol Gangoli is not the most convenient name to have when it comes to seducing girls.
But it's more than that. He feels constrained by his name and the dark cloud consisting of a suicidal, mentally unstable 19th century Russian novelist hovering over him as he is carving out the life that he envisions for himself. Gogol on a resume? The fact that Nikolai Gogol was a genius, his father reminds him, is no consolation.
From a mainstream American film audience's standpoint, Kal Penn could likely be the bait that intrigues people to see the film, as he has gained exposure in memorable comedic films like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Van Wilder. In his first high-profile leading dramatic role, Penn gives a worthy performance as Gogol, as he matures from disgruntled teenager to humbled adult. However, the film ultimately belongs to the parents, Ashoke and Ashima, played with artful restraint by actors Irfan Khan and Tabu. Tabu, especially, carries the film all the way through.
The film opens with Ashoke and Ashima's first meeting in 1960s India, with their arranged marriage and subsequent move to a foreign country. They create a home in America, and watch their children grow up in New York, periodically taking them back to India to visit relatives. In an impressive feat and with Nair's refined touch, the seasoned actors create a beautifully haunting, understated love story, developing a connection between strangers that feels more powerful than the romances we're used to seeing which have more emotionally open displays of affection. They take care of each other. It's simple, but intensely resonant.
In addition, the film follows their son Gogol's growth into adulthood, when at some point, to the private disappointment of Ashoke, Gogol becomes known as Nikhil, or just Nick. Gogol's two relationships, one with Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and one with Moushimi (Zuleikha Robinson), while unique and sophisticatedly flawed in their own ways, aren't given enough screentime to have the same impact as the familial aspects of the story. The arcs are both developed really well, only to be rushed through in the end. Gogol's relationship with Maxine is based on comfort and adaptation into her generous, open-hearted lifestyle, while his relationship with Moushimi is based on a familiarity and communal amusement for their parents' disappointment and expectations, neither being your "typical" Bengali archetype.
When it comes to a film starring ethnic-Americans, hearing the words "identity" and "immigrants" often comes with assumptions -- that this kind of story is cliched, oversimplified, and full of overdramatic protrayals of ethnicity issues. With the focus on immigrant and second-generation Indian American characters, The Namesake seems like a ripe candidate for these assumptions. It's no wonder that Penn, in his interviews and his Namesake blog (which he's been updating since he began shooting the film), is so keen on emphasizing the film as a very American story, side-stepping any references to race, and talking about how everyone can relate to these universal human emotions.
The Indian culture is inherently woven throughout the story, of course, but it's the backdrop. For the viewer familiar with the novel, there are little details from the book throughout the film that make for nice touches when transported onto the screen. Ashima mixing her rice krispies with Indian spices during her first days in America. An overanxious auntie sending a servant to follow Gogol when he goes out for a run on the streets of India. The women performing a tradition that predicts a baby's future path by presenting three choices in front of him on a plate and seeing which one the baby picks: a clump of soil means he'll be a landowner, the pen, a scholar, and a dollar bill indicates businessman. Other moments scripted directly for the screen are effective visually, such as a family visit to to see the Taj Mahal, Ashima's talent for singing Indian music, and of course, an exquisite, elaborate Indian wedding scene. If one looks closely, author Jhumpa Lahiri makes a cameo in the film, playing one of the aunts.
However, what's important to note is that the film doesn't rely on race to define any of the characters. Ashoke is a professor of mechanical engineering, who is undoubtably caring yet sparse with words when it comes to communication. Ashima is adjusting to living far away from her family in India, creating a new life in America and keeping her new family close to her. Gogol makes the untraditional career choice of being an architect and sometimes takes people for granted. None of the characters have any issues with being Indian, and generally no one else really seems to either. Their conflicts, regrets, struggles, and self-discoveries have more to do with their reactions to the unexpected adversity that shakes up their lives as they've planned it -- being forced to quickly adapt, sometimes making mistakes, grasping on to some relationships and turning others away without explanation. And in Gogol's case, what shapes his identity is finally understanding the communication that wasn't previously clear.
In a way, The Namesake celebrates the opportunity to constantly redefine ourselves, the journey that keeps moving forward, and -- as Ashima briefly admires about her American children's generation at the end of the novel -- the audacity to not be willing to "accept, to adjust, to settle for something less than their ideal of happiness." The film essentially feels like a meandering character piece, which is likely why there are reviewers commenting on how the film feels episodic or aimless. But when you are captured by the plights of the characters, you're willing to wander with them and be immersed in their experiences.
Date Posted: 3/2/2007