I’ll take a quick break from the Egypt travelogue and write about the most hyped movie in the recent times among the Indian diaspora – Mira Nair’s The Namesake. The Bengali intelligencia of Seattle area has been waiting with bated breath for the release of the movie and Jhumpa Lahiri’s book-reading coming up in May! So does the movie live up to the expectations? Read on!
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, following her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, tells the story of the Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, whose move from Calcutta to Cambridge, Mass., is a balancing act to adjust to a new world while honoring the old. Saddled by his immigrant parents with an odd name and the hopes and expectations of his family, their son Gogol struggles to find meaningful work, sustaining love, and his own unique identity and place in the world. It was a rather simple story told in a grand way. Honestly, I didn’t find the book any great shakes – it was long and meandering and awfully boring at times! I mean there was hardly anything spectacular about The Namesake – nothing that I haven’t read before. Over the years a lot of books have been written on immigrant lives and some of them are quite fabulous – Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, or most of the works of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni comes to mind immediately. Jhumpa Lahiri is a gifted writer; I absolutely love her Interpreter of Maladies, but on a personal level The Namesake didn’t work for me. It is not classic – full of clichés and predictable plot twists, The Namesake didn’t give me much to think about once I was done reading!
Ever since Mira Nair showcased The Namesake to standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, the buildup has been tremendous! I like Mira Nair’s work – she has given us some dazzling cinema like Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family and Monsoon Wedding and visually arresting but duds like Kamasutra and Vanity Fair. But her adaptation of The Namesake works and how! She took a 291 page average novel and turned it into a 2 hour film which gives the viewer very little to complain about. Very well written and brilliantly acted by Tabu and Irrfan Khan, the movie version The Namesake rises head and shoulders above the book!
Nair changes the setting from Cambridge to New York City where a young bride Ashima (Tabu) arrives sometime in the 70’s to begin her life with Ashoke Ganguly (Irrfan Khan), an academic whose deep attachment to Nicholai Gogol’s The Overcoat is never explained properly in either the book or the movie. Yes, Ashoke’s grandfather gave him the book to read; and it was the book he was reading when the train he was traveling in met with an accident; and he was clutching the remains of The Overcoat in his hand when rescuers found him. Quoting Dostoevsky he says “We call came out of Gogol’s overcoat!” Did he actually believe that Gogol’s spirit saved his life? Ashoke and Ashima’s love blossoms in cold wintry New York as lonely and isolated Ashima grudgingly makes concessions to the strange American world of washing machines and other conveniences. Nair has altered Ashoke and Ashima’s characters too from the novel in subtle ways, suggesting more warmth and love in their lives and includes a slightly gratuitous love-making scene. As Ashima settles into the American life and pines for her family in Kolkata, Gogol is born to the couple followed by Sonia, their daughter and they move to the suburbs in a bigger house to join the scores of middle class Bengalis who work hard during the week and congregate in each other houses over the weekend dressed in their best sarees and kurta-pajama and sing Rabindrasangeet after a few drinks!
Gogol (played from teenage on by Kal Penn) grows up and is hell bent on becoming a hip American and is ritually distancing himself from parental influence. Like many children of immigrants, he channels all his resentment into a profound loathing for his foreign name, Gogol Ganguli. In due course, Gogol finds his name all too distinctive and opts instead for Nikhil (often conveniently Westernized as Nick).
Later, as a twenty-something Manhattan architect, he finds that his unresolved sense of identity is affecting, among other things, his love life. The doting WASP girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) and her snobbish moneyed parents represent ultimate assimilation, but he settles down with a mirror image of himself: a modern, independent Bengali woman Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson) who torn between her free-thinking spirit and her self-imposed duty of making samosas from the scratch, brings her own baggage to their relationship.
When we finally leave Gogol, he's still figuring out the immigrant's eternal dance between tradition and modernity, between adapting to the new world and longing for roots. Only now he understands that the dance never ends.
This should be a breakout role for Kal Penn, holding the dramatic center of a film for the first time (unless of course you consider his portrayal of Taj Badalandabad in last year’s Van Wilder2: Rise of Taj as a dramatic performance). His Gogol is a funnier and more believable creation than the book's, in part because to play the teen malcontent, the actor has shrewdly imported aspects of the pothead persona he popularized in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." He does very well even though he’s burdened with a face that registers very few emotions beyond “doh”!
Tabu on the other hand is blessed with the most mobile (and the most under-used) face in Bollywood...she’s shy, she’s naughty, she’s a woman in love, she’s a concerned mother, she’s a grieving widow and in the end a matured woman who has risen above all the pitfalls of her life…she’s is a delight to watch! Her mannerisms, her body language, her crisp cotton tangail sarees and her Bengali accent is so perfect that Tabu makes Ashima comes alive. Irrfan Khan’s Bengali accent trips a few times... but only hardcore Bengalis will notice that. He slips into Ashoke Ganguly’s skin with amazing ease, tapping into considerable reserves of depth and subtlety.
The running time of 122 minutes could have been shortened if one or two sequences were chopped...specially the one where Gogol and Moushumi does a rather weird dance to a remixed version of Mukesh’s “Yeh mera diwanapan hai”. Also, someone should have told Mira Nair that middle aged Bengali widows typically don’t wear red bordered Kanjivarams to their son’s wedding!
Jhumpa Lahiri’s book is driven more by incident than by plot, and Nair's largely faithful adaptation suffers at times from an episodic choppiness. Still, the lack of obvious narrative arcs is refreshing. We laugh with the Gangulys, cry with them and through the tears we smile with them! Instead of melodramatic implausibility what we get is the commonplace stuff of life: marriages and breakups, births and deaths. The Namesake is a thoroughly engaging, terrifically moving family story that's rich in beautifully observed and lovingly conveyed human detail making it Mira Nair’s best film yet!