CAPSULE: Mira Nair covers about thirty years in the life of one Indian family. This is a film about the pull of one's native culture and the urge of the next generation to be free of it. This is a realistic story without a pre-packaged point. The film is intelligent and moving. Perhaps the telling is just a little rushed. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
I saw Mira Nair's MONSOON WEDDING on the morning of September 12, 2001. Nair told a somber audience at the Toronto International Film Festival that what was needed right then was a "life-affirming" film. Well, it was life-affirming, and it was a decent film, but it was a bit too fluffy for that audience that particular day with the MONSOON WEDDING's many somewhat simple plots woven together in Robert Altman fashion. Since then she has adapted Thackeray's VANITY FAIR to the screen in a pretty but a frothy and unsatisfying effort. THE NAMESAKE stands well above those previous two in a credible story of the conflict between family cohesion against the pull of two very different cultures. One generation loves one India, the next wants to be American and find its own identity. Jhumpa Lahiri's novel won the Pulitzer Prize and Nair's film is a rich one whose messages cross cultural lines.
In the 1970s Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) are brought together by their parents in an arranged marriage in Bengal. Ashoke is an engineer living in New York City. Ashima marries him and goes to live in a foreign city where she finds she will be a lonely stranger, always feeling a bit of an outsider. In time she has a child, Gogol (played as a child by Soham Chatterjee and as an adult by Kal Penn of HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE). Gogol is named for his father's favorite author, but he soon finds the non-Indian name sets him apart from his friends. It is neither Indian nor American. Ashima never loses her love of India, but her children feel out of place in Bengal . Gogol wants desperately to assimilate into American society. He goes to Yale later has a WASP-y patrician girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett). He tries to leave behind this name of Gogol but it becomes a symbol to him of his loyalty to his parents. Through it all Ashima and Ashoke, at first not well matched, find over a span of perhaps three decades that their love deepens. Ashoke outwardly seems to be accepted and successful, but we get a hint he still may see himself as grabbing for little pieces of status to look more successful to others like Akakii does in Nicolai Gogol's story "The Overcoat."
The screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala has a lot of territory to cover. Connecting scenes that most screenwriters would have included are left out leaving the viewer to deduce what has happened. This makes the narrative a little jumpy but allows for more scope to the film without making it overly long--a little over two hours. The screenplay has a broad range of emotions from amiable to strongly dramatic.
Some of the scenes set in New York City were actually filmed in Calcutta to save on the budget. Nair's love of India shows in the bright, colorful photography of Bengal compared to the more dismal color choices in 1970s New York. Yet the film does not leave us with the pat theme that Indians should maintain their culture. Instead it is a savvy examination into the relationships with people who come from the same family but not from the same culture. It is a story of love and of tension. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0433416/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper