Gabriel Byrne isn’t part of the cast of The Namesake. But the film owes a lot to the acclaimed Irish actor. It was Byrne who raved about Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel to director Mira Nair while she was directing him in Vanity Fair.
“(The Namesake) was not a film I was intending to make,” says Nair over the phone from India. But then she picked up the novel and was mesmerized. At that time she had lost someone very close to her in New York. The novel’s poignant tone as it paints the many losses immigrants bear as they make new homes, struck a powerful chord with Nair. On the runway in Boston, her seat belt buckled, Ashima looks at her watch and calculates the Indian time on her fingers. But this time no image of her family comes to mind. She refuses to picture what she shall see soon enough: her mother’s vermilion erased from her part, her brother’s thick hair shaved from his head in mourning … “I don’t want to go,” she says, turning toward the dark oval window. “I don’t want to see them. I can’t.” Nair said that midnight call from India is “the dread we all live with when we leave our homes.” She remembers when her mother had a stroke in Delhi and she was desperately trying to reach there from Kampala. She told Jhumpa Lahiri, “I feel just like Ashima. Fortunately it worked out in my case but in Ashima’s case, and millions of other cases, it’s already over when they reach.”
The emotions of what she calls a “deeply human story” rocked her so powerfully, Nair immediately inquired about the rights to the story. “Within a week I dropped everything I was doing and just got fully focused on this film,” says Nair. “Less than nine months later, we were shooting, which as you know is very unusual in the business.”
But then Mira Nair is nothing if not an unusual filmmaker. The Bhubaneshwar-born director lives on three continents. Her filmmakers’ laboratory has the motto—” If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.” Nair lives that motto to the hilt, telling stories of motel owners in the deep South and the laughing clubs of India. She’s directed street children in Bombay and dared to cast all-American Reese Witherspoon as Thackeray’s British heroine, Becky Sharp, in Vanity Fair. She’s been raked over the coals by fellow Indians and Film Society types for packaging the exotic-erotic in Kamasutra. Then she bounced back with Monsoon Wedding—a surprise international hit shot in 30 days for under a million dollars.
Monsoon Wedding has been her ticket to ride in Hollywood. It gave her the clout to get the green light for projects like The Namesake. Ten years ago a quiet, deeply reflective story about the rhythms of the lives of Bengali Americans might at best have been a labor of love for some indie filmmaker, patched together on vacations to India with a skeletal crew. In some ways, the real story of The Namesake is that the film got made at all, by a major studio like Fox Searchlight, and is getting a major release across the country after its debut at the Toronto Film Festival.
It’s a sign of the times, perhaps. Indian Americans are much more visible in the American mainstream, a far cry from the Mississippi Masala days. Nair agrees that if 10 years ago she had tried to make The Namesake it would have been much tougher. Then she laughs and says, “But I would find a way because I just refuse to hear ‘no.’ I am a bulldozer.”
Being a bulldozer is not a bad thing in an industry where even today few women, especially immigrant women, are behind the cameras. While the success of Monsoon Wedding certainly opened doors, Nair was well aware that everyone thought she was making Monsoon Wedding 2. After all, it had the same mix—brown people, love, relationships, even a couple of weddings.
“But this is a 30-year saga linking two continents,” says Nair. “I remember one of the people I was meeting for money said it’s a Caucasian budget for a non-Caucasian film.” She chuckles and points out that most romantic comedies in Hollywood cost nothing less than $25 million. “I was asking for a third of that for a full-on epic spanning over 30 years but it is not with Caucasians. That’s the challenge.”
There were a lot of other challenges in turning The Namesake into a film. First of all—the book itself. Jhumpa Lahiri’s prose is luminous, detailed, and utterly intimate, often looking inwards into the minds of her characters. But how does one turn an exquisite description of making jhal muri into compelling cinema?
On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion into a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves.
“I approached it like what I call the map of life,” says Nair. “What can I not do without it. The jhal muri was detail like that. It speaks volumes.” She remembers going to breakfast with a bottle of chili pickles in her hand. And she knew she had done the right thing in retaining that scene when she watched the film at a screening in Pasadena. “It was an audience of blonde heads and then there was this older Indian couple seated in the front row in front of me,” recalls Nair. “When this scene came on he leaned over and told his wife ‘chewda banave chhe.’”
While it makes her desi audience suddenly crave the sharp spicy tang of forgotten street food though everyone else might only see Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts (“Oh, she isn’t having it with milk like normal cereal. How weird!”), Nair knew that to make a successful American film, without Lahiri’s explaining touch, she would have to take the very Bengali experience of the Gangulis and give it some kind of universal appeal.
For that she requisitioned the help of her longtime collaborator Sooni Taraporevala to write the screenplay. “Unobtrusiveness and subtlety of dialog, that’s Sooni’s great gift,” says Nair. Taraporevala and Nair went back again and again to the book to “mine it as completely as we could.” They even went and scoured Lahiri’s previous book, the Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies. “I just had to feed myself more,” says Nair. The short story about the young couple who keep finding Jesus figurines hidden away in their new home found its way into the movie in the tacky reindeer Christmas lights that illuminate the Gangulis’ neighbor’s home in the suburbs. The twinkling lights were critical as a backdrop for a scene where Ashima is at her most anguished. “I still am not used to these holidays—the terrible feelings of loneliness for no reason. So how do I accentuate that feeling in a non-melodramatic way?” says Nair.
The script was only the beginning of the challenges. The film needed immigrants, American-born Indians, as well as Caucasians. From the very beginning Nair thought of Irrfan Khan (whom she laughingly says she “discovered” when she cast him in Salaam Bombay in 1988) as Ashoke.
Ashima proved more of a challenge. At various times, Bengali actresses like Konkona Sen Sharma and Rani Mukherjee were attached to the project. Eventually the role went to a non-Bengali—Tabu. Nair is all praise for Tabu for surrendering herself to her “without pretension and vanity.” She had to “reinvent” her voice: “I wanted the whole musicality of the way Bengali women talk in English.” She had to change her gait. “I made her see films every night like (Satyajit Ray’s) Mahanagar so she could study Madhabi Mukherjee.”
Ray and his contemporary Ritwik Ghatak have always been Nair’s guiding lights. “I made everyone watch (Ghatak’s) Meghe Dhaka Tara,” says Nair. “And I used to watch it every 30 days. That was unbridled emotion, yet not melodramatic.” In a little tribute to the master, she cast Supriya Devi, the heroine of Meghe Dhaka Tara in a cameo as Ashima’s grandmother in The Namesake.
When Irrfan Khan and Tabu arrived in New York to shoot, Nair packed them off to spend a day with Jhumpa Lahiri’s own parents who were visiting her in Brooklyn. She even sent Irrfan Khan off to New Jersey to spend a week with her caterer—Anup-da. “He talks with that early accent you first have when you arrive and I wanted that for Ashoke,” she says.
Gogol, the namesake of the story, was originally supposed to go to Abhishek Bachchan. Nair thinks it was for the best that didn’t work out when she realized what she really needed was someone who could play an Indian American, not just in terms of accents but also body language. Kal Penn had just won national attention for comedies like Van Wilder and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. But he hadn’t tackled a dramatic role like Gogol. He, in fact, was so desperate to play Gogol he had tried to buy the rights toThe Namesake only to find Mira Nair had them. Meanwhile Nair’s young son kept touting Penn to his mother. When Nair finally decided to cast him, Penn was floored. As a young boy, growing up in New Jersey, he had mustered up the courage to imagine he could become an actor when he had seen actors who looked and sounded like him in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala.
On the way to Massachusetts, (Gogol) tells (Maxine) things he figures she should know in advance—that they will not be able to touch or kiss each other in front of his parents, that there will be no wine with lunch.
“There’s plenty of wine in the trunk of the car,” Maxine points out.
“It doesn’t matter,” he tells her. “My parents don’t own a corkscrew.”
The restrictions amuse her; she sees them as a single afternoon’s challenge, an anomaly never to be repeated.
THE CALCUTTA CONNECTION
Nair has often described The Namesake as her “most personal film,” seeing much of herself in the story of a young girl who traveled from Calcutta and wound up in New York. In making the film she says she reveled in the chance to link her two favorite cities—New York and Kolkata. While most Indians draw parallels between New York and Bombay, Nair says although she loves Bombay, she feels a “similar energy between Calcutta and New York.”
“Perhaps it’s the graffiti, the devotion to the arts,” she reflects. “But I think it’s really the bridges.” The Namesake, the movie, is much more a tale of two cities, linked by the graceful arc of their landmark bridges than the book. In the book, Calcutta is the home Ashima and Ashoke leave behind. In the film, Ashima just has to stare out of her little apartment window to see the Brooklyn Bridge shimmering and the audience knows she is seeing the Howrah bridge on the other side of the world.
But Nair knew that she did not want to make a movie that “was all sepia and cliché about memory.” Instead, she wanted to make a film that was both about the dizzying dislocation of an immigrant and at the same time about the very American experience of a young man growing away from home. As rebels go, Gogol isn’t much of one but in his minuet with his parents, full of both love and frustration, Nair wanted her audience to recognize themselves.
Nair says the common thread between not just Ashima and Ashoke and Gogol, but going all the way back to the street kids of Salaam Bombay, is that they are all “outsiders.” “The migrant is the outsider. I am drawn to those people because they make their own worlds within them. And in my films I want to raise the question about who has the right to determine this person is an outsider and this person is not, whether it’s a street kid in Bombay or an associate professor in ’70s America.”
She says she is lucky that despite her eye for detail, Lahiri left her “a lot of air to breathe.”The Namesake does take a little license with the story. One small but important one for Nair was making Ashima a singer. There again she was sending her salaams to Ritwik Ghatak. “I am a huge devotee of Indian classical music and I love the uncompromising quality Ghatak has when he films a raga in a film,” says Nair. But how come a Bengali woman, who is a singer, who walks in the footsteps of actresses like Madhabi Mukherjee and Supriya Devi, doesn’t get to even hum a Rabindrasangeet? Mira
Nair laughs and says she had in fact filmed one in a party scene—“je raatey more duarguli bhanglo jhorey (On the night when my doors were broken down by the storm)”—a song she had always loved from Meghe Dhaka Tara. But in the end it just didn’t belong. “Maybe I should put it in the DVD extra. I was doing it because I just love it so much.”
In the end, The Namesake is about love for families left behind, families recreated, homes lost, homes made. Nair, who lives on three continents, says she understands that restless search for home when you cannot take any home for granted. “I have living homes in all three continents, clothes hanging in the closet, trees I have planted. But the real home is where my family is. I am literally defined by my family.”
People talk of how much they’ve come to love Ashima’s Christmas Eve parties, that they’ve missed them these past few years, that it won’t be the same without her. They have come to rely on her, Gogol realizes, to collect them together, to organize the holiday, to convert it, to introduce the tradition to those who are new. It has always felt adopted to him, an accident of circumstance, a celebration not really meant to be. And yet it was for him, for Sonia, that his parents had gone to the trouble of learning these customs. It was for their sake that it had come to all this.
Hollywood Meets Bollywood, a profile of Gurinder Chadha
A Direction of One’s Own, profiles of Shonali Bose and Pratibha Parmar
Who Were Kaju’s Birth Parents?, a review of Shonali Bose’s Amu
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|