Film: What's in a Name?

Strong performances power Mira Nair's intergenerational family drama, 'The Namesake'

Mar 28, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Fox Searchlight

Kal Penn (left) and Zuleikha Robinson star in Mira Nair's The Namesake.

What's in a Name?

Mira Nair, the Indian-born American director of the gloriously sensual Monsoon Wedding, is certainly the right choice to adapt to the screen The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about a Bengali family's life in the U.S.

Most crucially, almost 50 herself, Nair understands and feels enormous empathy for the parents in this family as they delicately navigate their way through a new environment without ever being able to forget India, their true home. As a result, Namesake is dominated by two wonderfully understated, enormously humane performances by Indian actors Irfan Khan and Tabu as the husband and wife, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli.

What Nair can't do is make equally convincing the developments that affect and define their son, Gogol (Kal Penn) — especially his romantic relationships — as he enters adulthood. They seem to unfold in shorthand. They're too hurried to make us feel whatever he's supposed to be feeling.

So while The Namesake is ostensibly an intergenerational family drama, it's really the parents' story that has lasting impact. As the quietly rebellious yet loving son, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle star Penn gives a generally winning but too earnestly centered performance that doesn't keep up with his character's arc from teen years into early adulthood.

The Namesake was the follow-up novel for the young Lahiri, whose book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize.

You can see the plot contrivances in the film; there's a portentousness to everything that happens that becomes too easy to anticipate. But you can also see the beauty of her ideas about the immigrant experience as well as her respect for Indian culture and heritage.

The film starts with one of those portentous moments, which then goes unexplained until a flashback halfway through the movie. Young Ashoke, on a crowded train, is reading The Collected Works of Nikolai Gogol while an older passenger goads him about the need to travel. "My grandfather always said with books you can travel the world without moving an inch," he replies. There follows a crash.

Ashima is early on glimpsed as a beautiful dark-haired young woman — a student of Indian classical singing. (The film has a fine Indian-music score by Nitin Sawhney featuring sitar and flute.) When Ashoke's parents bring him over to meet her and her family in their Calcutta home for a possible arranged marriage, she's so politely shy one can't tell whether or not she's attracted to his bookishly intellectual gawkiness. But the thought of moving to America, where he's a college instructor in engineering, is compelling. So they marry.

The scenes involving their life in unromantic Queens, N.Y., in the 1980s, in a dreary flat where she has to learn to turn on the gas, are vividly realized. We feel how lost and scared she is as she studies a subway map, but also how this isolation helps to build the closeness between the couple.

The actress Tabu has a soft voice and manner but is not passive at all. She exudes a kind of optimistic melancholy — hopeful for the future but sad about the lost past — that gives the film its defining tone.

Khan's acting is modulated, too. In one especially fine scene, Ashoke starts off sternly mad at his wife and then apologizes as she hides in the bathroom and cries. We see his goodness and his concern for her safety and happiness in this strange, strange land.

The key plot point — and the crux of the film's meaning — revolves around their son's name. Because an American hospital presses them, they give his "pet name" of Gogol (after the writer) while awaiting instructions from relatives on his more proper "good name," which becomes Nikhil.

In India, families can wait years to settle on a proper name. That name problem and the split identity it represents for the son become symbolic of the way Indians in America must live in two cultures. Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala deserve credit for making something so obscure to American audiences, and fundamentally non-visual, easy to grasp.

As the family gets older, has a daughter and moves into New York suburbs, Ashoke becomes a respected professor and Ashima takes a job in a library. They also build a comfortable social world around other Bengali families.

But Gogol has trouble figuring out where he fits. He gets stoned and plays loud Rock music while his patient parents wonder what's up. A visit to the Taj Mahal inspires his interest in architecture, but as he pursues his career he also finds a blonde, sexually active high-society girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) and starts to distance himself from his family.

The Namesake stumbles with this relationship — which happens without letting the audience see the developing attraction or feel the commitment between the two. It seems pre-ordained that it will facilitate a family crisis ... and it does.

When he next meets an Americanized, sophisticated and very forward Bengali girl (the dynamic Zuleikha Robinson) through a date arranged by his mother, it's love — or at least sex — at (almost) first sight. And then, boom, a traditional arranged marriage that neither would seem to believe in. Again, this plot development seems pre-ordained to facilitate a family crisis ... and it does.

Through it all, however, The Namesake's towering figure is Tabu's Ashima. Her wisdom, stoicism and graceful beauty make the film memorable and heartfelt. The Namesake is an ode to her and to those who have experienced what she has. Grade: B