April 16, 2007

For the Sake of the Family

Print More

It is only fair to warn you that I was predisposed to liking The Namesake before I even saw it. Between my love for the novel and the crush I’ve had on Kal Penn since Van Wilder, in my eyes The Namesake never had a chance to fail. However, even with two large hurdles to overcome — the adaptation of a slow-moving story to film and that the title role actor’s past experience was limited to frat-style comedies — Mira Nair’s adaptation of the beloved novel manages to capture the saga of an Indian family’s induction and assimilation into America while trying to retain their own cultural identity with a simple, unaffected grace.
The story begins on a train in Calcutta, where Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan of Bollywood fame) is reading a copy of Nikhail Gogol’s The Overcoat and engages in conversation with an older man who urges him to travel the world. Ashoke replies, “My grandfather says that’s what books are for, to travel the world without going an inch.” Ashoke takes the man’s advice, moving to America immediately after an arranged marriage to Ashima (Tabu).
The film follows the lives of the two Bengali immigrants as they adjust to American culture and to each other and then the lives of their two children: their son Gogol (Kal Penn), named after the aforementioned Russian author, and daughter Sonya (Sahira Nair). Gogol rebels against his parents, getting high and disdaining his parents and their traditions. His angst is directed towards his name, which becomes the symbol of his struggle against being an outsider and not understanding his parents.
The film shifts into his later years at Yale and as an architect, when he chooses to go by the name Nikhail and date the WASP-cultured Max (Jacinda Barrett), who represents the antithesis of his parents’ traditions and expectations. After his father’s death, Gogol rejects Max and returns to his family and heritage, even through a failed marriage to Moushimi (Zuleikha Robinson), another Bengali. As Ashima learns to live life without the company of her husband, Gogol also finds a way to accept his past and finally understand his father and his wishes for him.
Unlike in the novel, much of the film centers around the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima, so that Gogol’s story is minimized and the sister, Sonya, is only seen in sparkling glimpses behind her brother. It’s unfortunate that Barett’s character is relegated to little more than a caricature and given a large portion of the few stilted lines of dialogue in the script. Her two-dimensional character, however, is more than made up for by Khan, Tabu and Penn himself, whose portrayal of the cultural outsider and lost son is almost shockingly authentic.
However, even with Penn’s devastating performance, the breakout award has to go to Tabu. In a particularly moving scene, she stands in the doorway of her parents’ house and slips on Ashoke’s shoes, and after walking around in them, seems to decide that marrying him will be alright.
The film is shot in a series of contrasts: the bold hues of India in Ashima’s eyes versus the grey of New York; the music, song and noise of India and Ashima’s joyful moments there versus the quiet of her and Gogol’s loneliness in the States. All this shows us the constant dichotomous pull of the family’s torn feelings, as they attempt to simultaneously inhabit two worlds. Though the film at times speeds through important moments to encompass the whole of the novel, overall, Nair’s adaptation remains loyal to the original while constantly portraying not only the particular struggles of being an Indian immigrant in America, but the more universal ones of who we are and how we interact with those around us. If, as Ashoke’s grandfather said, a book is a way to travel without moving an inch, then a film, and The Namesake in particular, is a way to see into the lives of others without leaving your seat.
The Namesake
Directed by Mira Nair
Starring Kal Penn, Tabu
PG-13, 122 min.
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)
The Sun’s Rating: four out of five towers