Early in Mira Nair’s movie, Ashima, a lovely Bengali woman living in Calcutta, is receiving advice from the women of her family on the eve of her arranged marriage to Ashoke, a shy, bookish man with whom she will soon be living in the United States. One of the older women tells Ashima, “Embrace the new, but do not forget the past.” Thus begins, both literally and thematically, The Namesake, a tale of immigration and family told through the relationship between Ashima (played by Bollywood actress and Indian model Tabu) and Ashoke (Ifran Khan), and through their U.S.-born son, who bears the unfortunately alliterative, but meaningful, name of Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn).
Note: In addition to viewing a screening of The Namesake, I had the opportunity to participate in an interview with Mira Nair. I plan to post excerpts and an audio transcript of the interview at a later date, once I’ve had a chance to review and edit the interview.
The Namesake, which was adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name, is somewhat familiar territory. Independent movies about the experiences of immigrants have a long history in American cinema. Nair herself has visited this subject matter twice already, with Mississippi Masala and The Perez Family. This is also not the first time Nair has explored the dynamics of an Indian family; Monsoon Wedding still easily ranks as one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. But The Namesake is not at all a rehash of the director’s earlier work. It’s a subtle, restrained, and ultimately, very moving portrait of three characters, their adaptations to their surroundings and their relationships with each other.
Shortly after Ashoke and Ashima give birth to their first child, a son, in a New York hospital, they are informed that the child must have a name before they are discharged. Because the name is traditionally decided by the maternal grandmother, who is living in India, Ashoke decides to give his son a temporary name, to be changed later, and calls him “Gogol” on a whim. Nikolai Gogol happens to be Ashoke’s favorite author, but there’s another reason why he chooses this name, which is not revealed until two-thirds into the movie. The struggles of Gogol, in many ways a typical American kid who just longs to be like everyone else, to come to terms with his name and his culture, serve as the narrative framework for the movie.
The most obvious revelation here is not that Mira Nair can direct, but that Kal Penn can act, given the opportunity. For Penn, who is best know for such movies as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Van Wilder, and for his guest starring role as the terrorist-next-door in this year’s season of “24,” this is by far the meatiest role of his career. Gogol’s character, and his personal discovery, are central to the plot of the movie, and Penn tackles the part quite well, which is impressive considering the character’s development from a pot-smoking, grunge-listening, air guitar-playing teenager to a spiritually ambivalent thirtysomething Manhattan architect. Tabu, playing Gogol’s mother, is captivating and the deeply lonely mother who bitterly misses India, but slowly learns to accept her new country as her own.
The best thing about The Namesake is that although nothing that happens is altogether surprising or shocking, it also feels wholly organic and wonderfully authentic. These seem like real people, and the reality of what they are experiencing feels beyond question. Nair films the story with a photographic, sometimes almost monochromatic, texture that is subtle and muted. It’s quite a contrast from the saturated and lush colors she used in Monsoon Wedding, but it’s also very appropriate. Monsoon Wedding was about a flamboyant Punjabi family during their wedding festivities. The Namesake is about a reserved and introspective Bengali family and their daily life.
The best parts of the movie are small and quiet: for example, the young bride to be placing her feet inside the shoes of her future husband whom she has not yet met, a scene that is repeated to powerful effect later in the movie. There is also a very funny scene involving a young married couple acting out the standard love scene from a Bollywood movie on their wedding night. Everything about the movie feels understated, and admirably so. The movie doesn’t insult the viewer by bludgeoning you with its message or playing anything in a way that is ever big or obvious. Instead, it slowly pulls you in and lets you discover what makes these characters for who they are, in the context of their lives. It’s a film that stays with you after you’ve seen it.
At times, the movie does feel a little over long and more episodic than narrative. But even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did Monsoon Wedding, I have no reservation about recommending this movie, and I would enjoy seeing it again. It’s a very good film, and it’s refreshing to see a movie—a well-crafted movie—about normal people, rather than extraordinary events. It’s also nice to see a movie that is about family that is neither idealized, nor about dysfunction. Although some of the movie’s nuances might be lost on someone lacking a background in Bengali or Indian-American culture, most of it feels universal and sympathetic, no matter the viewer.
The Namesake was released by Fox Searchlight in New York and Los Angeles on March 9 and will be in limited release in other parts of the country later this month.