A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Mira Nair, 2006, India/USA, 122 mins, Bengali/Hindi/English
Cast: Irfan Khan, Tabu, KAL PENN
With The Namesake, Mira Nair is offering a different kind of epic to Vanity Fair (2004) and Monsoon Wedding (2001), while managing to encapsulate successful elements of both, the cinematographic vibrancy of Monsoon Wedding, coupled with the more insightful societal study of Vanity Fair.
The Namesake is a Bengali familial tale opening in Calcutta with an arranged marriage between Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Khan), but brutally cutting to the snow covered industrial landscape of Queens, New York, where Ashima and Ashoke attempt to adjust to a new life together in America. Tender aspects of their relationship are explored, merging seamlessly into an intimate portrait of family life as Ashima gives birth to two children, Gogol (Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair). As Gogol and Sonia grow up the difficulties of family life are faced. Gogol becomes distanced from his parents, and his culture, and it takes a dramatic event to reunite and bond the family.
Like the contemporary Asian culture depicted, the film is a fusion of many elements. Characters are real, dialogue is sharp and honest, and the film’s messages are easy to relate to regardless of background. The issue of duel identity permeates this film, saturating each thread with the struggle of an immigrant’s relation to his/her home and host culture. The immigrant experiences of transplanting traditions, cultural juxtapositions and generational change are all explored, as are humanity’s common themes of alienation, belonging and the concept of home. Gogol’s progressive distancing from his parents with maturity, highlight the cultural changes over time in an immigrant family but also exemplify the common drive for individual identity and freedom.
Despite its cross-cultural appeal, The Namesake offers no compromise in its study of the Indian experience. Many of the film’s funny moments are specific to the Bengali culture so be aware that jokes may be missed along the way. When Maxine, Gogul’s Western girlfriend, is introduced to his parents, for example, she addresses them by their names, a commonplace occurrence in Western culture but an exceptionally rude act in Bengali culture. This is interesting in itself as it affords a fleeting glimpse into the alienating experience of being an outsider, and demonstrates nicely the difficulty of integration and understanding a new culture.
Though there is much of The Namesake which is faultless, the film does feel tightly squeezed. It is a courageous adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel but as with many ambitious projects, essential elements are missed. Not all plot lines are given enough space to justify their inclusion; Gogol’s relationships in particular are insufficiently explored, hence the film is shallow in places. Overall, with The Namesake, Nair makes a welcome return-ish to form, with a more personal vision, conveying great intimacy and warmth.