Starring: Kal Penn, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Zuleikha Robinson, Jacinda Barrett
Director: Mira Nair
Adapted from the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, this epic tale has been brought to the big screen with a delicate touch by Mira Nair. The stifling heat of Calcutta and contrasting chilly American winters serve as perfect metaphors for the two distinct cultures. Director Mira Nair and cinematographer Frederick Elmes work well together, painting a romanticized picture of both cities.
This enchanting story about a newlywed couple, the Gangulis, who move from Calcutta to New York, is as much about cross- cultural differences as it is about a tense relationship between an obstinate young man and his devoted family.
The story unravels as the couple, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), head for a life of opportunity to live their American Dream in New York, leaving their large families behind in Calcutta.
The couple has two children, a son, Gogol (Kal Penn) and a daughter, Sonia (Sahira Nair). Originally, Gogol’s name was intended to be his pet name as is Bengali tradition. However, the name eventually stuck, much to his vexation. Gogol, in his teenage years, shows a lack of interest in his Indian heritage and is constantly embarrassed by his bizarre name. He goes to college under the more eloquent Nikhil, which his white girlfriends can easily shorten to Nick. He becomes an architect, moves to Manhattan; he blends in.
It’s not until the second half of the film that Gogol learns of his name’s significance with a touching and beautifully executed exchange between father and son, where all is revealed. This turns out to be one of the film’s most poignant moments. There are, in fact, many emotional moments in this film, touching the hearts of all who have watched it.
Soon, Gogol becomes the central protagonist and continually finds it hard to deal with the contradictions of his American lifestyle and his own Indian heritage. The more he tries to live the American Dream, the harder it is for him to find a place for his parent’s Indian culture. His failure to embrace the Indian culture creates distances between him and his family. His relationship with a wealthy blonde American, Maxine (Jacinta Barrett), seems fated to fail when he’s required to adopt his Indian roots after a family catastrophe. Gogol considers himself correspondingly unlucky in love when he hooks up with a beautiful Bengali woman–Moushumi (Zuleika Robinson).
The acting for the most part is fabulous, although Kal Penn could have been better earlier in the film. His enactment as a petulant young teen is not very convincing at times, although as an older and eventually wiser man he is absolutely fantastic.
Irrfan Khan and Tabu are as believable as newlyweds as they are in older age. Their years of experience and strive for perfection shows in the subtleties they bring to their roles.
The movie’s prevailing metaphor is bridges; the 59th Street Bridge in New York, the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta, Gogol himself, a human overpass linking India and America. As in “Monsoon Wedding,” Mira Nair finds joy in rituals, and displays them with panache.
The Namesake has a large story to tell and its minor messages are the ones that stand out. This film will provide a pleasant surprise, no matter how much you’ve read about it. Just when the audience feels they are accustomed to its sentimentality, they realize they aren’t. “The Namesake,” like its literary source, ends as the journey begins.