Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” is her ninth film, and I believe it is the one she is most proud of. It follows a young couple from Calcutta who have an arranged marriage and move to New York, where they meet each other and learn about their new country, before having two kids. The story then moves forward to focus on their son while still keeping them in view. Nair must have felt a connection with every word on her source material, Jhumpa Lahiri’s beloved novel.
The first meeting between the young woman Ashima (Tabu) and her prospective husband Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) is filmed with subtle charm. Her future mother-in-law warns her that life will be more difficult in New York than it is at home, without friends and family around. “Won’t he be there?” she asks shyly, referring to Ashoke. He smiles solemnly, and their future is sealed. Her new husband is an aspiring architect, earning enough at first to afford only a low-rent flat in a marginal neighborhood. Even though their circumstances are tough, he tries to remain positive: “In this country, the gas is on 24 hours a day!”
The initial days of their married life were cautiously walking and conversing with one another, tentatively engaging in love. It goes smoother than it may seem because this is a marriage that was meant to be between the ideal pair, and their regard for and trust in (and eventually deep love) only increase.
Gogol’s (Kal Penn) son, Gogol (Kal Penn), and daughter, Sonia (Sahira Nair, the director’s niece), arrive. The origin of Gogol’s name is discussed a lot; it isn’t Indian or American, but was inspired by his father’s favorite writer. As an adolescent, Nicky (or “Nicky”) begins to despise it because of its association with his father’s first name. There is, however, meaning behind the name “Gogol.” Gogol’s father often brings up Gogol’s short story called “The Overcoat.” The protagonist in that story has an embarrassing name–as explained by Gogol himself: “it was utterly impossible to give him any other name.” Consequently, how the American boy got his namesake becomes a family legend amongst them.
The movie is focused on the experience of being Indian and American simultaneously. It follows close ties with other Indian immigrants, adding curry powder to Rice Krispies, moving to a split-level suburban house, and sending the children to college. Gogol, or Nicki, dates and eventually marries a white girl named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett). However, due to cultural differences and a period of family mourning, the relationship falls apart. He then marries Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), a Bengali girl he met years ago. His sister’s daughter also marries a nice white boy named Ben. Ashima philosophizes that “times are changing.”
The culture gap is most evidently seen when Gogol takes Maxine home to meet his parents and tells her ahead of time: “No kissing. No touching,” warning her that he has never even seen his own parents touch each other in affection. However, despite this prior knowledge, when she meets them Maxine impulsively kisses their cheeks anyways – but to no avail as the earth does not move. Moushumi’s parents want her to marry “a nice Bengali girl who makes somosas every Thursday,” but the film shows that children of immigrants often don’t stick to their parents’ expectations.
The film focuses on a span of approximately 25 to 30 years and is, therefore, episodic in design. What makes it cohesive are the deft performances by Tabu and Khan—both Bollywood stars. They never go overboard with their acting, frequently using looks and body language to communicate what words cannot. Consequently, they convey great passion without ever having to raise their voices or speak too loudly. Kal Penn is not a million miles from his Gogol character in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” but he is considerably smarter. He’s an angel for the first 13 years of his life, at which time his parents, God forbid, discover they’ve given birth to an American teenager.
“The Namesake” is a coming of age tale that tells the story of every immigrant group in America: daring parents, children growing up as strangers, and the old culture merging with the new. It’s been claimed that all present-day Russian literature stems from Gogol’s “Overcoat.” All of us emerged from the same immigrant experience, just like all prior generations before us.
Director: Mira Nair
Writers: Sooni Taraporevala (screenplay), Jhumpa Lahiri (novel)
Stars: Kal Penn, Irrfan Khan, Tabu