THE NAMESAKE

Mira Nair’s epic is a tale of strangers in a strange land, of coming to terms with your roots, and of the changes within a family over time. Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) is a Calcutta student whose parents arrange a marriage to Ashima (Tabu), a lovely and well-read young woman. He is a student in New York and takes his new bride to the big, cold city to start a life together. Before long, they have two children who grow up before their very eyes. Sonia (Sahira Nair, the director’s niece) is a pretty but shiftless teenage girl, and her brother Gogol (Kal Penn of “Harold & Kumar” fame) is a typical, modern American teenage boy, teased over his name (even his sister calls him “Goggles”) and seemingly embarrassed by his heritage. A family trip back to India, featuring a visit to the Taj Mahal, is a key turning point: Gogol, who has a penchant for drawing, wants to be an architect – just like his father aspired to be. Gogol changes his name to Nikhil (he’s named after the obscure Russian writer) and is off in New York, where he falls for a pretty blonde called Max (Jacinda Barrett), short for Maxine. Friends and acquaintances are made, with Gogol becoming close with Max’s family (her mother is played by Glenne Headly) and Ashima becoming a librarian (her colleague is played by Brooke Smith). Before long, Gogol’s parents are put off by his independence of spirit, but after a time, eventually will come around (“Times are changing,” Ashima muses). His father, meanwhile, tries to explain to him the importance of his name (an early scene of a train wreck and some brief flashbacks later on figure in), but he just doesn’t seem to appreciate it till it’s too late. After a family tragedy, Nikhil (Penn) runs back regretfully into the “old ways” – shaves his head, insists on being called Gogol again (once his “pet name,” now his “good name”) and shuts Max out. Will they get back together? In the interim, he falls for a Bengali girl named Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), a sexy student of all-things French who had a brief, shy and near-silent run-in with Gogol in their youth. They are married, and life takes yet another turn. ‘Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows. Mira Nair is the wondrous Indian filmmaker who came on the scene with “Salaam Bombay!” (1988), continued with “Mississippi Masala” (1991) and would go on to make the wonderfully Altman-esque native film “Monsoon Wedding” (2001) and the epic adaptation of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” (2004) with Reese Witherspoon. She is comfortable in English and Hindi with subtitles, has worked with unknowns and movie stars alike; she once directed Denzel Washington in an early role (“Mississippi Masala”) and Uma Thurman in the TV film “Hysterical Blindness” (2001). In Penn, she has found a decently known performer who can play his part well and isn’t a million miles removed from his character’s experience – an Indian twenty-something born in America. I was most moved, however, by the performances of Tabu and Khan. They manage to go from being young in an arranged marriage, to eventually an older and loving couple raising two kids in a strange country. They are warm, sweet and completely believable. The screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, doesn’t really have a plot, is episodic in nature, uses the metaphor of the name and its meaning as a theme more than a plot point, has the feel at times of a slice-of-life, yet manages to wring the contours of melodrama out of it. In its tale of generational differences among a family of immigrants in America, I was somewhat reminded of Gregory Nava’s wonderful film “My Family” (1995), as well as Nancy Savoca’s “Household Saints” (1993) for its portrayal of traditional values vs. the independence of youth (though there, it was the child who was more “traditional” and here it’s vice-versa). If the film has a flaw, it’s a technical one at the screenplay level: it seems to start from Ashoke’s point of view, before shifting first to Ashima, then to Gogol for a long time, and ending again with Ashima. Perhaps it is in fact about everyone, but to me it felt a bit muddled in that way. Nevertheless, Nair has made a moving and thoughtful tribute to a specific immigrant experience.

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