As time passes, the couple has a son and a daughter and move to a comfortable suburban life. Like all immigrant families, Ashoke and Ashima struggle to inculcate traditional values in their children. They want the children to have the opportunities the US offers, without losing ties with their cultural heritage. Inevitably there is a vast disconnect between the older and younger generations of the Ganguli family, particularly with the son, Gogol, whose search for identity and growth to maturity is the central theme of Lahiri’s novel. Named after his father's favorite Russian author, Nicolai Gogol, Gogol wants to be just like other American kids. To him his ‘weird’ name becomes symbolic of everything that is alien about his parents, the main reason he is not being able to fit in either of the worlds he inhabits. He attempts to forge his own identity by rejecting everything his parents value, changing his name to the more American sounding Nick, choosing to be an architect rather than an engineer, distancing himself from his parents and violating cultural taboos by dating a wealthy white girl. His parents, bewildered by his choices, accept his assimilation into a culture that is still alien to them with quiet dignity, or as Ashima has learnt to say like her children do, “it’s no big deal” and let him live his life on his own terms, suppressing their personal disappointments.
A sudden tragedy in the family changes everything, and Gogol is left to face grief and guilt that eventually leads to his acceptance of himself for what he is, a recognition of his deep love and respect for his parents and their values, and his ability to move on with life strengthened by this notion of himself and his rootedness in his family. The film ends symbolically with Gogol accepting his namesake as a gift from his father and not the burden he had always thought it was.
Nair stays close to the essence of Lahiri’s novel and its central theme of displacement and search for identity. The tale is told with so much compassion, love and humor that the overall effect is stunning. One leaves the theatre with an immeasurable feeling of pain and a perception of the tenuous nature of life and all we take for granted. The final message is to appreciate what we have and cherish every moment, because one does not know when it will be snatched from us!
Nair’s cast brings to life this simple yet profound tale. Tabu and Irfan Khan’s chemistry was palpable in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool (2003). Once again they are brilliant together as Ashima and Ashoke – strangers who learn to love each other as they build a life together in a land far away from their birthplace. Tabu, Nair’s third choice for the role of Ashima, turns in such a compelling performance that it is difficult to imagine how anyone else could have done justice to this role. She is the moral epicenter of the film. The Namesake is as much about Ashima as it is about Gogol. The film follows her journey from a young girl moving out of the security of a large loving family in Kolkata to the cold and lonely life as the wife of a student in the US, to her growth as a middle aged mother trying to understand her children’s rebellions while trying to keep her family together, coping with the anguish of bereavement and loneliness with serenity, grace and dignity
Irfan Khan, who made his debut in Nair’s Salaam Bombay! is equally convincing as the soft spoken, self effacing, Bengali idealist. He does not articulate much, but his deep love for his wife and children, his acceptance and understanding of his son’s anger and disrespect is evident in Khan’s expression and body language. The combined effect of Tabu and Khan’s finely nuanced performances is of a searing intensity.
Kal Penn, known for his comedic performances in stoner films, does full justice to his first dramatic role, turning in a multi-layered, sensitive performance that will appeal to every second generation immigrant who has experienced the conflicts of a hyphenated existence. He captures the resentment of an outsider who is torn into two cultures, has a name from a third, rejects one, then the other, ultimately accepting the dualities that have made him what he is. Penn makes Gogol, with all his angst, utterly likable and we continue to root
for him as he grows from a pot-smoking, callous teenager to a sensitive and caring young man coming to terms with loss, guilt, betrayal and love. According to Nair, Penn was a choice urged on to her by her teenage son and his friend who were great fans of Penn. Her original choice, Abhishekh Bachchan, in my opinion, would have changed the whole narrative, made it a different kind of movie. One interesting thing to note, in the credits, Penn is billed twice: as Gogol played by Kal Penn and Nikhil played by Kalpen Modi, his real name, ironically reflecting the theme of dual identities that form the core of the film. Does this mean that he is considering using his real name in future films? Time will tell!
The supporting cast is equally good, with Sahira Nair as Gogol’s sister Sonia, Jacinda Barrett as his WASP girlfriend Max, and Zuleikha Robinson as Moushumi, the sexy, intellectual Bengali girl who marries and then betrays Gogol. Unfortunately, the premise of the film (and the novel) doesn’t allow us more than a glimpse into these interesting characters, surely each would have a story to tell! Well known Bengali actors form the extended family back home in Kolkata, along with Jhumpa Lahiri’s family members in Kolkata and in the US to lend the film a vibrant cultural ambience of the two worlds.
Kolkata and New York are set as the symbols of the two worlds and generations the film spans and emerge as characters of their own. Nair shuttles us back and forth between these cities that are strikingly similar – the camera lovingly pans the massive bridges and the crowded streets of both – yet so different in color, sound, feel and pace! Amazing cinematography and visual imagery gives a panoramic vision of the disparate worlds, as Nair and her crew swing us back and forth between middle class Bengali households, hot, dusty
streets of Kolkata, the ghats of the Hooghly River, the majestic Taj Mahal, the vibrant fall colors and snow covered yards of American suburbia, the modest homes of non-resident Indians with their ethnic décor, the sprawling estates of wealthy East Coast elites, the skyscrapers, contemporary apartments, offices, restaurants of New York.
Nair finds ways to connect the two worlds not only visually, but also through sound. Like the story, the soundtrack traverses both time and cultures, moving with ease from Indian classical, Rabindrasangeet, old Hindi film songs, and Baul music to New Age and Hip Hop. The diverse musical sources, encompassing acoustic guitar and strings, interspersed with Indian vocals and instrumentation reflect the old world/new world conflict that is at the core of the film.
The script adapted by Sooni Taraporevala stays as close as possible to the original. The narrative is driven more by character than plot, the structure is episodic, the pace languorous and erratic, at times painfully slow, at times packed with events, much like the pattern of life. Nair remains non judgmental about her characters’ choices and portrays how disparate cultures combine to create a uniquely hybrid culture. Using humor and irony as her colors, Nair paints images that reflect this unique culture. Ashima’s first American breakfast comprises Rice Crispies spiked with cayenne pepper and peanuts; she crafts beautiful personalized Christmas cards with ethnic designs; a traditional Bengali wedding with elaborate rituals in performed in a hotel that does not allow a fire – the most important component of the Hindu religious ceremony; Ashima continues to wear a saree, and remains a nervous driver despite having lived and worked in the US for over two decades. And which non-resident Indian child has not experienced the innumerable ‘Uncles’ and ‘Aunties’ who participate in every important occasion and know every minute detail of their lives?
This is not the first time a film on the Indian immigrant American experience has come our way. There have been a plethora of crossover films in the US like Chutney Popcorn (1999) American Desi (2001), ABCD (1999), American Chai (2001), Flavors (2003), Green Card Fever (2003), Where’s the Party Yaar? (2003), etc. that have addressed the reality of this new generation of Indian immigrants with varying degrees of success and authenticity. However, many of these have portrayed cultural conflicts in a comedic vein. They are usually made with small budgets, and few were visible in mainstream US or Indian media. Bollywood has also touched on this theme several times, big budgeted, multi-starrers, made with far less authenticity. For instance, Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006) is a monstrous caricature of the lives of rich Indians who live in the US. The film uses New York as a glamorous backdrop for its pretentious overtly sentimental exploration of extramarital relationships, displaying absolutely no understanding of the immigrant life. Ironically non-resident Indians throng to see such movies, making them huge money-spinners overseas.
In comparison, The Namesake will probably not rake in money from the Indian audience that roots for films like KANK and Dhoom2. But if they decide to brave what they may perceive as an artsy film, it is bound to touch their hearts! One does not have to be Bengali or even Indian, to relate to The Namesake. It is a beautifully crafted, well enacted, powerful film that eventually transcends its immigrant theme and focuses on the love, sometimes tenuous, sometimes fierce, between parents and children. It may not resonate with the same intensity to people who have never experienced leaving home and family, but will be familiar to anyone living in a land not their own, anyone who has faced generational conflict, and anyone who is a parent with children living far away, or a child who has experienced the loss of a parent in a far away land! A must watch!
Please Note: The Namesake is rated PG-13 for some profanity, drug content, brief female nudity and simulated sex, and brief glimpses of some gory and disturbing imagery.