By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 5, 2007
Poignant and beautiful, “The Namesake,” the latest film from director Mira Nair, is a touching meditation on the importance of family ties.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Namesake” is the story of the Ganguli family. As a student, Ashoke brings his bride Ashima to America immediately after their arranged marriage. The two young people encounter difficulties as they adjust to life in New York and fight homesickness for their native India. Together, however, they are able to establish a new life and a new family in their adopted country. Their children, Gogol and Sonia, are raised as Americans, and the family faces the questions faced by millions of immigrant families—how and when to assimilate the traditions and customs of their native country into their lives in the United States without losing their cultural identity.
Nair ably illustrates the unique position faced by the family; in the United States, their Indian heritage clearly sets them apart from their neighbors in the New York suburb in which they live, yet when they go to visit their family in India, the children’s American clothing and attitudes make them alien there as well.
This situation is especially delicate for the son, Gogol. As he reaches adulthood, he has a difficult time reconciling the expectations of his traditional Indian family to the realities of his life as a young architect in Manhattan. Gogol’s dilemma is reflected in his name. The “namesake” of the title, the boy was named after his father’s favorite author. He only learns after he is grown the true significance of that name—that it symbolizes for his parents a particular event that forever changed Ashoke’s life and put them on the path to their life in the United States. The waxing and waning state of Gogol’s connection to his family can be traced by his use of that name versus his “good” name, Nikhil. As Gogol, Kal Penn, best known for the comedies “Van Wilder” and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” does a creditable job. Although his teenage angst seems contrived, Penn does a good job showing the depth of Gogol’s feelings when he faces heartbreaking situations as an adult.
“The Namesake” really belongs, however, to Tabu, whose performance offers a luminous presence that lights up the film. As Ashima, she shows the loneliness of a woman who has had to leave her home and everyone she knows and loves, to live with a virtual stranger on the other side of the world. Her strength is evident as she builds a life for herself and her young family, and her quiet fortitude and sadness as this family leaves her is truly heartbreaking. Playing opposite the excellent Irrfan Khan as Ashoke, Tabu makes Ashima the center and the most sympathetic character in the film. When we first see Ashima, she is hurrying home for an interview with her proposed husband and his parents. As she is about to enter the living room where they are waiting for her, she spies the young man’s shoes in the entryway. She slips her bare feet into the sturdy shoes labeled “Made in the USA,” and, in that moment, realizes that her life will forever be bound with this man she is about to meet.
Mira Nair does an excellent job of capturing small moments such as this: a quiet morning spent by Ashima and Ashoke reading the paper and drinking tea, the awe of the entire family visiting the Taj Mahal while on vacation, the loneliness of Ashima decorating holiday cards and signing them with the names of all the family even though she is all alone. Although Nair lingers on these intimate moments, the pace of the film never wavers; she moves on briskly from one event to the next and tells the story of two generations of the family in a manner that never seems sluggish.
As the story proceeds, the family grows away from each other, then finally comes back together in sadness and in happiness. “The Namesake” demonstrates the importance of family and also the value in taking joy and comfort from the traditions with which one is raised. The characters are multi-faceted, and never simple.
In short, “The Namesake” is a film that will remain with you long after you leave the theater.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.