“The Namesake”, directed by Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”, “Monsoon Wedding”) and based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, tells the thoughtful, well-told story of a Bengali family’s life in New York. The parents move to the country, try to get acclimated, have children and then try to instill traditional values in them as they grow up and deal with their own difficulties. “The Namesake” is a very good film, but it lacks just a little something to make it a great film.
Ashoke (Irfan Khan, star of many Bollywood films) meets Ashima (Tabu) in India. Their parents are very keen on their marriage and both consent to become man and wife; Ashoke is clearly taken by Ashima’s beauty and Ashima seems to be intrigued with the idea of living in America. Upon their arrival in New York, Ashoke immediately returns to work, leaving his new wife to acclimate to the new, cold weather surroundings alone. Soon, they have a child, Gogol, named after Ashoke’s favorite author, Nikolai Gogol. Then, they have a daughter, Sonia. As the children grow, they become more and more entrenched in the American way of life, eschewing many of the parent’s traditional beliefs. After graduating from college, Gogol (Kal Penn, “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”, TV’s “24”) announces he wants to change his name, he can’t see Gogol Ganguli on a resume getting him a good job. This causes a rift between father and son, causing discord in their relationship.
Directed by Mira Nair, “The Namesake” is a beautiful looking, thoughtful film. If Nair is able to accomplish anything, it is to make her films thoughtful examinations of the challenges her characters face in a new environment, or as they strain against old-fashioned ideas and morals. Her films have concentrated primarily on the experience of Indians, both in India and America, throwing her min characters into a new situation, as they face many challenges. In “The Namesake”, the story centers on the Ganguli family and it is much different than I originally anticipated.
Watching the trailers, you might get the impression the film is primarily about the struggles of Gogol (Penn), as he deals with life as an Indian in the United States. Actually, his story is just a part of the overall film. The film begins in the 70s, as Ashoke travels on a train, reading a collection of works by Nikolai Gogol. Later, he meets Ashima, they marry, move to America, get to know one another, have children, and much more. The film presents a lot of detail about the lives of this family.
In less capable hands, the film would completely succumb to its ‘melodramatic’ structure, but Nair manages to keep these tendencies at bay, for most of the film. The director makes the characters very real, showing them in very natural situations. This is the history of this family, not merely a slice of life. Because of that, we watch various, representative episodes through the years, in an attempt to get a full picture of the Ganguli family.
Irfan Khan has made about forty films, according to IMDB, and this is the first time I have ever seen him on screen. The majority of his work has been in Bollywood, but with this film, he appears to be branching out and has just completed a role in the Anjelina Jolie film about journalist Daniel Pearl and his wife. Khan is really good as Ashoke. He makes the character seem real by imbuing him with feelings and attitudes that seem real. He almost doesn’t appear to be acting; he appears to be pulling thoughts and ideas from his real life to make this character seem more realistic. When he is happy, he smiles slightly, when he is upset, his eyes narrow and he stares at the person he is talking to. He isn’t effusive, but realizes he has to protect his family and try to live with their mistakes, even if he disagrees.
Tabu is also very good as Ashima, the Ganguli family matriarch. As soon as she arrives in America, she tries to acclimate, on her own, but finds it too much. When Ashoke realizes this, he becomes much more compassionate, maybe even falls in love with her a little more. As she grows older, and her children grow older, she becomes more of a patriarch, more of a guiding force in her children’s lives.
Kal Penn is probably the most recognizable face in the cast. He is good, but he is not a great actor. Penn is capable of delivering the emotions necessary to portray Gogol, the young man torn between tradition and his desire to be a modern American, but he only delivers the one emotion, or thought, never making his character seem real. When Gogol is supposed to be sad, Penn frowns. When he is happy, Penn smiles. There is never anything underneath the surface, never a layer of conflict or a layer of any other emotion than the one he is supposed to portray at that given moment. This makes his performance serviceable, but not much else.
Initially, I thought the film would be primarily about Gogol, which would mean a lot of screen time for Penn. I was surprised to find the film is more of a family portrait, charting the course of this family’s journey to America and how they deal with all of their problems. This helps the film because it takes the focus off of Penn and let’s the other actors, the better actors, contribute to the success of the film. The other actors are better.
Jacinda Barrett (“Poseidon”, “School for Scoundrels”) appears as Gogol’s American girlfriend. And she is also serviceable. It is easy to see why he would be attracted to her, physically, but she is also a little boring. She is always smiling, a little giggly, which fits her character well. But we never really learn anything about her. At one point, Gogol asks her about her dreams and ambitions. Her replay is “I don’t want to think about it now”.
Nair has a real knack for pulling away the layers, allowing her characters to show their feelings in a natural way. Ashoke is a complicated character, and we see that in just about every scene, every conversation, every action. Nair allows the character to retain their Indian roots and heritage, yet deal with life in America. Throughout the film, the family has traditional celebrations, interacts with the Indian community and through these moments, we get a glimpse of this culture. I am not an expert, but because these moments are so thoughtful, and interesting, I have no doubt they are also realistic as well.
“The Namesake” is a well-made and thoughtful film, but because of the very reasons it is well made, it is less than great. Because the film covers so much territory, it seems slightly melodramatic, cutting through the film’s power like a knife to butter. The scenes are well done and get the message across, but they give the film an episodic structure. There is an overall theme to the film, Gogol accepting his heritage and identity, and there is another layer below that, which I won’t reveal, but because the scenes are episodic, they don’t allow the story to generate any heat or power, to make it resonate with the viewer. The final moments will move you, I just wish there were more moments like this throughout the film.
As you watch, you will become engrossed in the lives of these characters, then the story shifts, and you have to become familiar with them again, at this new point in their lives. This isn’t bad, but these scenes don’t always grab us, and demand our attention. After a while, they become a little routine and our attention shifts.
“The Namesake” is a well-made film, worth your attention, but it is not an incredible film, or a memorable film. You will likely only remember it when you hear about Mira Nair’s next film.