The Namesake (2007)
Starring: Kal Penn, Tabu, Irfan Khan, Jacinda Barrett, Sahira Nair, Zuleikha Robinson, Brooke Smith
Directed by: Mira Nair
Mira Nair‘s The Namesake, adapted from the Jhumpa Lahiri novel of the same name, tells the story of two generations of the Ganguli family, providing a glimpse at the immigrant experience in America. The movie follows Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) and his wife Ashima (Tabu) after their arranged marriage in India, following them back to New York, where Ashoke is a grad student. Ashima has a difficult time assimilating into the alien culture of America, with the culture clash symbolised in the birth of their son Gogol (Kal Penn), who receives his name when the couple is forced to give a quick name to their child instead of following the Indian custom of allowing Ashima’s grandmother to choose, and they choose the name of Ashoke’s favourite writer, Russian author Nikolai Gogol.
Slowly, the family establishes roots in America, with the couple’s children Gogol and daughter Sonali (Sahira Nair) firmly Americanised, with little interest in their Indian roots. Over time, Gogol rejects his name, without knowing its significance, and goes with his second name, Nikhil (Anglocised as Nick), further showing his disconnect with his family and their culture. He would rather spend time with his white girlfriend Maxine’s (Jacinda Barrett) family than his own.
The cast is uniformly excellent in their roles, fleshing out their characters in the three decades or so the movie spans. The movie itself is an excellent look at the immigrant experience and the sacrifices they need to make to fit in with their new country while struggling to hold onto their past. It’s incredibly poignant in this way, with the story of Ashima particularly resonate. Nair has filmed a gorgeous-looking film, bringing life to Ashoke and Ashima’s small apartment, then later the Ganguli family home, and especially in their family trip back to India following Gogol’s high school graduation. The movie is worth watching for the trip to the Taj Mahal alone.
Unfortunately, for all the movies strengths (the immigrant commentary, the strong performances, the beauty, and the very human story), it is still fairly flawed. Watching the movie, you get the impression that Jhumpa Lahiri’s book is probably very good, but its adaptation has issues. The movie’s narrative doesn’t quite gel, switching perspectives and lead characters throughout. On its surface, it feels like it’s Gogol’s movie, be he doesn’t appear until the second act. On the other hand, Ashima gets a strong focus of her own, and comes off as the most interesting and sympathetic character, but the movie clearly isn’t hers. It’s the sort of thing that works fine for a novel, but seems unfocused in a two hour movie.
Worse, the movie has issues with pacing. Nair has made a languid film of poetry and beauty, not reliant on large moments to invest the audience. At times it works quite well in letting us get to know the characters and their world. Unfortunately, when the big moments do happen, they feel rushed and ram-roded into the movie. It feels like there’s more to the story then what we get, and it feels unnatural, and at times frustrating. Characters make big life decisions seemingly out of nowhere, causing a disconnect that makes it difficult for us to understand their choices or sympathise with their plight.
It’s too bad, because there’s a lot to love about this movie, aside from the focus and pacing problems. It feels like it would’ve made for a really great mini-series, but as a movie it is too flawed to achieve the greatness that it at times felt capable of. It’s still a worthwhile effort, but not the superior effort it was so close to becoming.