Saturday, May 05, 2007

Film Review #98: The Namesake
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Kal Penn

On its surface, The Namesake spans more than three decades and territorial points between Calcutta and the US. Focusing on the immigrant experience, its governing images are bridges (the 59th Street Bridge in New York City and Calcutta’s Howrah Bridge), trains and airports. But its range is implicitly even grander too, given that its inspiring source is a story by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol about the idea of travel itself and that its plot unfolds as a clash between East and West as played out between generations in one Bengali family.

Indian director Mira Nair – who says she read Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2001 novel of the same title during a transatlantic flight and landed knowing she wanted to film it – insists vividly that “clash” is much more than a suggestive but conventional word choice. In the adaptation – which for example moves the US setting from Cambridge to Queens – Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala retain one defining event they might have cut. As a young man in 1974 dutifully visiting his grandfather, Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan, soon to be seen again in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart) survives an actual train wreck that occurs just after he’s read the Russian story and a mysterious stranger has advised him to travel. So we are perhaps in league with Ashoke – who indeed does travel, who names his son Gogol, and who is really the central character here – in anticipating something epic and portentous.

The Namesake’s title and plot certainly encourage us to see Ashoke’s son as the central character, as if the early marriage of Ashoke and Ashima (Tabu), with its struggles and loneliness in a strange culture, and the relatively painless progress of younger sister Sonali (Sahira Nair) serve to add background poignancy to his confusion. Rejecting the name Gogol in adolescence – his American schoolmates suggest it will be unhelpful with girls – he takes up his seemingly more versatile “good” name Nikhil, shortening that to an Americanized “Nic.” Of course this only echoes the Russian writer’s whole name – and Nic’s attempt to escape himself – more fully. Years later Ashoke tells his son about that defining train wreck and the name’s history, as Nic’s own full-circle journey begins to round the far turn. This involves young love with a blond named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and brief marriage to the brainy, cosmopolitan Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), who then leaves him for a European colleague.

Kal Penn, who has actually done quite a lot more that might recommend him for this role than the usually cited Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), plays this son. Penn’s performance is problematic in the same way that Tom Cruise’s Nathan Algren was problematic in The Last Samurai (2003). That is, Cruise did not have the heft to carry Algren successfully as heroic. Except for being unintentional, his portrayal of Algren as mostly self-centered, self-deluded and callow was pretty good. Penn’s performance strays in the same way. When Nic tells Maxine, “I don’t care what my parents want. It’s what I want,” it’s hard to see what she finds attractive in him in that moment and hard to see how the supremely empathetic Ashoke’s son will find his way back.

Unexpectedly, what is most memorable in this film and what animates its sense of intimacy, tenderness and loss are moments of extreme resonant delicacy that instead center on the older generation.

First there is the matter of the shoes, which elegantly brackets Ashoke’s life – first a young woman’s attempt to divine the essence of an arranged suitor and then the son’s attempt to know the father he often ignored. As a young woman who is torn herself – she really would prefer to pursue a musical career and not to marry, but wishes to escape her parent’s home – Ashima pauses in the hallway outside the formal visit at which she’ll meet Ashoke and his parents. Spying the American shoes he left at the doorway, Ashima slips into them, as if trying to slip inside the man. During the interview, one parent inquires whether Ashima won’t mind being far from home, all alone in New York City, and she replies, “But wouldn’t he be there with me?”

Years later, Ashoke dies suddenly, away from home in an anonymous Midwestern city where he’s gone for a semester to teach. It falls to Nic to collect his father’s body and effects. He gets only as far at the front door of this utterly temporary apartment and the loneliness of his father’s last months wash over him. In a single, echoing impulse, the son slides his feet into a pair of Ashoke’s shoes left by the door.

Then there is the matter of the locked door. This occurs early in Ashoke and Ashima’s marriage, where Ashima puts all the laundry in the dryer and shrinks Ashoke’s sweaters. Shocked and upset, he raises his voice. She, startled by this outburst, rushes tearfully into the bathroom and turns the lock. With the barest of pauses, Ashoke looks down those long years in wintry Queens – his face already scowling, his mouth forming the angry demand – and chooses another future. Carefully, he apologizes, coaxes Ashima to open the door, teases her gently until he has her smiling. Much more than a charming rendition of the immigrant’s innocence, this moment lays the foundation, for example, for the scene in which Ashoke’s sexual patience with Ashima is repaid by her sudden, genuine arousal. Few bedroom scenes on-screen get as much mileage from a single, deeply felt gasp.

Really the epic and the portentous serve such moments – impulses of curiosity and yearning, impulses to search for another’s essence over seemingly impassable gulfs, as much as to go and see the world.

This review was published on 5/1/07 at