The distributors of Mira Nair's new film missed a trick when they decided to release it a couple of weeks after Mother's Day. Father's Day would have worked too. Far as I know there is no such thing as Children's Day (every day is children's day), but what I'm getting at, The Namesake is the kind of movie you should take your folks to, or your kids, if they're grown-up. And pack some tissues. You'll bond.
The trailer makes it look like it's all about Kal Penn, which is a little misleading - the Harold and Kumar star doesn't make an appearance until well into this two-hour movie. He plays Gogol Ganguli, a name lovingly bestowed on him by his father, Ashoke (Irfan Khan) in honour of his favourite writer, Nikolai Gogol.
In fact 'Gogol' was only supposed to be a pet-name, but somehow it sticks, and by the time the five-year-old trots off to school he won't answer to anything else. Later he gets a different perspective. When he goes to Yale, he reinvents himself as Nikhil, and starts dating blonde beauty Maxine (Jacinda Barrett). He's embracing the American Dream in a way his first generation immigrant parents never could.
But this is (at least) as much their story as his. The novel, by Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, is told in the first person from the point of view of Ashima, Gogol's mother (played here by Bollywood star Tabu). Save for a dramatic pre-credits sequence, the film begins with Ashima meeting a suitor in her parents' large home in Calcutta. The first thing that impresses her about Ashoke is his shoes, politely stationed outside the door. They're two-tone leather spats, from America.
'Wouldn't you be lonely, going off to the other side of the world, with its freezing weather, thousands of miles from your family?' Ashoke's father asks of her.
'Why, wouldn't he be there?' she replies - charting her own destiny.
New York is lonely, and cold, and foreign. But Ashoke is a good man, and in time the married couple fall in love.
The Namesake spans a thirty year period in its multi-generational saga of here and there, sometimes a little sketchily. But Mira Nair (who made Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding) is such a smart, gifted film-maker, she ensures it's not about dramatic turning points, but about continuity, the traffic and flow of experience.
We've seen a lot of films about second generation immigrant teenagers rebelling against their traditional upbringing, but Nair blurs those lines: Ashima may be taken aback by Maxine's immediate familiarity, but she and her husband allow their son to find his own way. Gogol isn't really the rebellious type. He's just unsure where he fits into the world. That dynamic is something a lot of immigrant families can probably relate to; and most non-immigrant families too.Nair, cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet; The Ice Storm) and composer Nitin Sawhney bathe this artfully composed movie in rich, sensual textures that echo and refract across the continents. But for all the obvious cultural contrasts, there is nothing exotic about the movie's emotional spectrum, beautifully conveyed by Irfan Khan and Tabu in particular.
It's not a flawless film. The whole business about Gogol's name carries a metaphorical weight that it barely supports, and it rather canters through the last ten minutes. But I can't pretend to be overly objective, The Namesake struck an emotional chord with me, I heartily recommend it.
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