THE NAMESAKE. Director: Mira Nair. Players: Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kal Penn, Jacinda Barrett. Based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Mira Nair’s adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, is so poignantly authentic that it is sure to leave a lump in your throat, if as an adult you have straddled two cultures and called two diverse continents “home.”
The Namesake is as much about the rebellious Gogol Ganguly (Kal Penn) stuck with a ridiculous name as it is about his mother Ashima who moves from Calcutta to New York, and sprinkles cayenne pepper and peanuts on Rice Krispies in a nostalgic effort to make jhal muri. The frozen icicles hanging outside her apartment mirror the cold grip on her heart left by a total severance from friends and family.
Ashima, fascinated by the “Made in USA” shoes of her prospective suitor Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), says “yes” to him because he is the best of the lot shown to her; amongst others was a widower with four kids, and a journalist minus an arm. When Ashoke’s father enquires of her whether she would be willing to fly halfway across the world in a plane and live alone in a city with severe winters, she says, “Won’t he be there?” and the union is sealed.
The lonely days are filled with the birth of her son for whose “good name” the parents await a letter from Ashima’s grandmother. The letter never arrives and thus a “pet name,” Gogol, given to the boy, becomes his only name. Ashoke was reading a book by a Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, when a train accident in his youth nearly claimed his life. It is the fluttering of the book in his hand that saved Ashoke’s life and engraved the name of the author on his mind forever. The name becomes the bane of Gogol’s life and symbolizes everything that he wants to be rid off.
Is the alliance with a rich white girl a way out for Gogol torn by cross-cultural pulls, or a union with a Bengali girl the road to happiness? Will Ashima’s growth from a young bride to a mother providing a Bengali culture for his son ultimately define her? Will her adopted home and new family of friends give her enough comfort to brace the tragic turn of events in her life? Or will she have to fall back on the city of her youth for comfort as she ages? The Namesake depicts the issues faced by the immigrant generation and their offspring with empathy.
The camera moves adroitly between New York and Calcutta, feeling the pulse of two throbbing cities, painting a wide canvas of two diverse but rich cultures with panache. It is perhaps to create a more impressive backdrop that Mira Nair deviates from the book, in which the couple lives in Cambridge, Mass.
Nair is a master of understatement, drawing laughter and tears from succinctly etched moments in everyday life. The tragic news that the midnight ring of the phone brings, the shaven head that epitomizes loss, the shocked look in the eye brought on by the peck on a cheek, the hollowness in the stomach of a mother who is unable to wish her son on his birthday, pulls and turns and clashes of cultures and generations that are gut-wrenching or humorous, are all portrayed by this master filmmaker without excessive drama or dialog.
Irrfan Khan is the perfect persona of a Bengali intellectual while Tabu establishes once again her superior prowess as an actress. Kal Penn, cast by Mira Nair on her son’s recommendation, delivers a convincing portrayal. But the star of The Namesake remains Mira Nair, who has herself made the journey from Calcutta to New York, is privy to the pain, pleasures, and pathos of the first-generation immigrant, and has created a film that is touchingly genuine and keeps tugging at your heart long after you have seen it.
Jessi Kaur (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Bay Area-based writer who has a passion for film and theater.