Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

March 23, 2007

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 6:36 pm

March 23, 2007

Cast: Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kal Pen

Director: Mira Nair

Director Mira Nair’s new film, The Namesake is adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel about an immigrant Bengali family in America and more specifically about the American-born son’s search for identity.

Nair’s film stars Irrfan Khan as Ashoke Ganguli, a young Indian academic in New York in the late 70s, who returns to Calcutta for a bride. His parents arrange his marriage to a gifted singer Ashima – played by Tabu – who leaves behind her home, her family, and her country to live with her husband in the Big Apple. From a modest apartment in Queens, the Gangulis move to a house in the New York suburbs, where they raise their two children. Their son Gogol fits in nowhere – not in America, not in Calcutta on his visits back home, and not with his outlandish name. In fact he fosters a sort of lifelong resentment towards this name, and opts instead for the more eloquent-sounding Nikhil when he goes to college, where in fact his white girlfriend shortens it to Nick. The film then traces Gogol’s coming-of-age story as he struggles with his identity, forming a love-hate, push-pull relationship with his heritage and his roots.

First things first, let’s understand and appreciate that there are far too many challenges involved in adapting a book to the screen, and doubly so in the case of a book like this, which spans over 40 years. But Mira Nair and screenplay writer Sooni Taraporevala do a commendable job packing in all the essential details, every significant event and incident, and pretty much the entire mood of Jhumpa Lahiri’s book.

It’s clear that the film’s central theme is alienation from other cultures and one’s own, and it’s remarkable how the director hits the right note from the very start. Take that scene in which Ashima drags a suitcase of dirty clothes to the Laundromat in the biting New York winter, her husband’s oversized coat wrapped around her own Dhaka saree. It’s a telling scene, and only one of many such beautiful memories that stay in your head long after you’ve watched the film.

But it’s important for me to say here that despite all its beauty and despite the fact that it’s a warm, poignant and a relatable story, The Namesake does not dig as deep as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding did. Compared to that film, The Namesake only skims the surface and isn’t quite able to get under the skin of its characters. While there’s no denying that the film raises significant issues about the second-generation immigrant experience, it’s also true that it fails to explore these issues thoroughly.

Yet, if this film works and keeps you engaged till the very end, it’s because of the landmark performances of its principal cast. American-Indian actor Kal Pen plays Gogol as a sulking, irritable, rebellious brat, then suddenly he shows another side which is conflicted, complexed and unexpectedly insightful. Tabu, meanwhile uses incredible subtlety as she ages Ashima from period to period, going from a playful girl in her 20s to a 40-something devoted mother. It’s a performance that’s so rivetting, you want to stand up and cheer for her because you can see why she’s truly one of a kind. But the real star of The Namesake, the actor who lends the film a quiet dignity, a silent grace, is Irrfan Khan. He plays Ashok Ganguli with an angelic gentleness that permeates through the film and stays on even when his character doesn’t.

I’m going to go with three out of five for Mira Nair’s The Namesake. It’s a deeply moving film about love and belonging, about parents and children, about why they clash and why they finally come together. It’s also about grief and loss and that’s something we can all relate to.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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