The Namesake – Review

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“I don’t want to raise him in this lonely country,” says Ashima (Tabu), soon after the birth of Gogol Ganguli in Mira Nair’s new movie The Namesake, opening in a limited release today. Based on the critically acclaimed and commercially successful novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, the movie proves to be a remarkably faithful adaptation. Raise him here, of course, she does, but those words remain a rare break in her composure, a heartfelt expression of homesickness and fear.

For the record, I loved the book, and was rather nervous about how such a tender mood piece – thin on plot and crowded with sensitively drawn characters – could possibly translate onto film. The story of a young Bengali couple, strangers to each other, starting a life together in a foreign country, raising children who might grow up to be strangers to them in turn, vanishing, absorbed into the alien world… the frisson of recognition for almost any South Asian immigrant would be electric, right?

It certainly was to me, as I sat there trembling in my seat, watching the title credits scroll across the screen in a Bangla script that slowly faded to English lettering.

A hasty (not very spoiler-ish) summary:

Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) brings his new bride Ashima (Tabu) to New York (location change from book!) from Calcutta. She shrinks his sweaters in the wash, eats her breakfast cereal with peanuts and chili powder, and generally does the best she can to adapt to this cold new country. Their first son is nicknamed Gogol after Ashoke’s favorite author, a placeholder name as they wait for a “good name” to come from Ashima’s mother in India. This pet name, however, takes hold, at least until Gogol Ganguli (Kal Pen) decides in high school to change his name back to his good name – Nikhil. He grows up, becomes an architect, rebels against his parents by dating a wealthy white girl (Jacinda Barret), then falls for a Bengali girl (Zuleikha Robinson) and attempts to reconcile his two names, two identities.

Irfan Khan and Tabu deliver quiet, controlled, delicately nuanced performances that are simply breathtaking. Really, I’m going to embarrass myself by hemorraging inane adjectives. I could’ve sat for hours more, just watching them watch each other, paragraphs being telegraphed across a table. Tabu ages from a young girl secretly, gleefully, trying on her soon-to-be-fiancee’s wingtip shoes in Bengal, to a suburban librarian with an empty nest. Irfan Khan is almost unrecognizable as a bespectacled, scholarly man whose silences should not be mistaken for timidity.

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Kal Pen finally gets a chance to stretch, and he seizes it eagerly, fiercely. Perhaps a little too much so. As a scowling teenager, boy does he scowl. As a conflicted young man trying to escape the claustrophobic embrace of his parents and their values…boy does he emote. When grief strikes and his values change…boy does he…well, let’s just say he’s intense. Eh, maybe I’m being too critical. He’s got bucketloads of charisma, and if he suffers by comparison to the actors playing his parents, it is, perhaps, not a fair comparison. His acting is very physical (the teenage years mean shoulders hunched about his ears, for example) but he still conveys a visceral feeling of unease in one’s skin, shame, and then a slowly dawning sense of pride and responsibility. It’s not his fault that I can’t get the indelible Kumar Patel out of my head.

Visually the movie is gorgeous, somehow combining both Mira Nair aesthetic extremes – the scrappy, jagged, raw feel of Monsoon Wedding and the lush set-piece look of The Kama Sutra and Vanity Fair. The cool blue tones of the Northeastern winters capture the loneliness and isolation vividly, as Ashima drags a handcart full of laundry down a grey sidewalk, vinyl-sided homes to the right of her, asphalt to the left, and she a lone spot of jewel-toned sari, valiantly fluttering beneath a thick cardigan. The India scenes are vivid but never feel forced as Gogol lectures his mother about riding in a rickshaw and his sister complains about the heat, capturing in a nutshell (more forthrightly than the book did, perhaps) the dual dislocation felt by the hyphenated children.

If the movie has a flaw, it stems from cramming as much of the book as possible into two hours. The result can seem rushed (Gogol decides to become an architect on a visit to see the Taj Mahal. Then, presto chango! He’s an architect in Manhattan) and choppy, while other moments are repeated (Ashoke’s train accident – i.e. why Gogol got that name, Ashima stepping into Ashoke’s footwear) for bang-you-over-the-head emphasis. The score can be a bit intrusive (I could feel a tender moment coming up every time the volume was raised on a particular plink…plink…plink…fluuuuuuuute musical motif), but it did give a great energy to necessary location shots and quick montages.

Packed with tiny details (the smile falters on Ashima’s face when Maxine greets her by her first name) and nods to first-gen lives (ducking mom’s phone calls, fake/ironic Bollywood dance steps), The Namesake gets so much right, the missteps seem minor. A small word of advice – carry your cell phone with you to the screening, because you will want to call your parents afterwards.

125 thoughts on “The Namesake – Review

  1. Chachaji,

    (I guess this is a total hijack!)

    HA! That would be the funniest thing to see a semi hurtling down the street in India. I think the closest thing to those was the darn TATA buses roaring down narrow mountain roads as we drove up to Munnar. SCARY I tell ya.

    And, yes, I’m older than SD Masala. And shorter. She introduced me to this blog thru her blog. Actually, 4 years ago I didn’t even know what a blog was (I thought it was some kind of booger j/k) but she got me up to speed.

  2. Chachaji, that photo of the VERY decorated truck you linked to, is a Pakistani thing, right? I’ve never seen such decorated trucks in India but I’ve heard that’s very common in Pakistan. Beautiful, in any case.

  3. Chachaji, that photo of the VERY decorated truck you linked to, is a Pakistani thing, right? I’ve never seen such decorated trucks in India

    Amitabh, yes, this one appears Pakistani, though similar (if less extravagantly ornate) trucks probably do exist in India too (I would think). Of course, it’s still Desi, right!

  4. Brownsugar,

    I completely agree…I watched in last night in NYC, every show was sold out but as we were leaving this girl offered her tickets cuz her date didnt show up (bad for her but good for us), it would have been much better coming from Gogol’s POV. I got the same feeling of incompletness while watching EARTH-1947 which was based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man. That movie could’ve been so much more…

  5. Jhumpa Lahiri was interviewed on Fresh Air (NPR) and said about her “good name” that in fact Jhumpa was her pet name but it stuck when she went to school and her kindergarten teacher prefered the name, to her parents’ distress she was registered that way. The teacher didn’t like or couldn’t pronounce her “good name”… You can search it at

  6. Those evil kindergarten teachers. Mine called me Tamale. Or maybe Attila. Anyway, I can’t remember now. On a random Kal Penn note, my favorite of his movies thus far is Malibu’s Most Wanted — a wonderful satire of race and class in America.

  7. Jhumpa Lahiri was interviewed on Fresh Air (NPR) and her kindergarten teacher prefered the name

    I heard the interview just now – it’s from back in 2003. Her ‘good names’ seem to be Neelanjana Sudeshna. I wondered how nobody thought to register her as ‘Neela’ or even ‘Neila’ – the first being a valid ‘Indian’ name by itself and the second a valid ‘Western’ name. I know so many (maybe too many) 2nd gen Indian-Americans males named Neil, so this would have been a relative no-brainer!

    Her story reminded me of Santha Rama Rau, whose own given name, Vasanthi, is largely lost to history! Even more interestingly, Santha Rama Rau has an essay By Any Other Name.


    On the first day of school, a hot, windless morning of a north Indian September, we stood in the headmistress’s study and she said, “Now you’re the new girls. What are your names?”
    My sister answered for us. “I am Premila, and she”, nodding in my direction, “is Santha.”
    “Oh, my dears, those are much too hard for me. Suppose we give you pretty English names. Wouldn’t that be more jolly? Let’s see, now. Pamela for you, I think.” “And for you,” she said to me, how about Cynthia? Isn’t that nice?

    The incident is in India, circa 1930.

  8. It seems Namesake is going to make it big!!

    Indian Stunner,’ the headline in the New York Post reads, followed by a glowing review for Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestseller The Namesake. Giving the film three and half stars out of four, reviewer Lou Lumenick ends the piece: You don’t have to be Indian to love The Namesake.

  9. As for Jhumpa’s husband’s name, Alberto Vourvoulias Bush…his “middle name” is actually part of his surname. It is very common in the Latin-American community to keep more than one last name much like the hyphenated names in America. Jhumpa Lahiri Vourvolais-Bush can be understood as Jhumpa Lahiri “of the” Vourvolais-Bush family. Here’s what I’ve read on (April 2006 issue)in response to a question about his roots,

    “Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush: My father was American, but of Greek origin. He actually grew up in Colombia. And my grandparents from his family lived in Mexico for a long time as well. My mother’s family is Guatemalan, but her family also lived in Mexico for a time and that was where my parents met.”

  10. Fellas — this is a lovely film. I went in prepared not to like it because the book didn’t do much for me but Mira-bai has done wonders with it. And the adapted screenplay improves it a lot. Irfan Pathan is just fantastic, Kal Pen quite adorable and Zuliekha Robinson is perfectly cast as the callipygous femme-fatale. It is one hell of a sweet, weepy ride.

  11. Ravi the Lurker on March 9, 2007 05:59 PM · Direct link There was one problem in the editing that most of you will probably catch; Ashima is seen putting on her sari but the shot is backwards; her pallu goes up her right side instead of her left. In the next shot it is on the left side.

    That’s because the camera is pointing at a mirror. Go to and watch the clip “There is someone waiting to see you”. There is a younger girl in the shot and you can clearly see her feet reflecting off of the beveled edge of the mirror.

  12. cicatrix, great review. i especially like the mention of the subtleties. Perhaps I am less forgiving than many of the previous posts, but I personally think the movie could have pushed the envelope a bit more. To me, it speaks greater volumes to a non-Indian audience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it left me (an Indian-American) feeling only superficially satisfied. More here spaceMonkey Blog

  13. A small word of advice – carry your cell phone with you to the screening, because you will want to call your parents afterwards.

    Finally got to see it, last night in Houston. Cicatrix line summarizes my feelings entirely, and those of the friend who accompanied me. Nice experience!

  14. Hmm..I expected a lot more out of this movie. It was so slow paced and lack of content. Don’t you think it should have had more.

  15. I saw it yesterday…enjoyed it. I agree with Manish Vij’s criticisms on his blog, but still overall I could relate to the movie in many ways…especially as I too am a child of 1970s immigrants to NYC and I do have some memories of what things were like back then. Tabu looked HOT. It was also nice to hear Bengali in the film, beautiful language.

  16. I didn’t think the movie itself was Oscar worthy. But Irfan Khan deserved a nomination. It seems like Oscars will bend over backwards to nominate a foreigner if they are British. Cate Blanchett in that piece of crud Elizabeth the sequel? I am sure she did a good job, but come on. There are plenty of good performances where they do not have to go rewarding a good performance in a bad movie unless the performance is so exceptional it deserves being recognised.

  17. It seems like Oscars will bend over backwards to nominate a foreigner if they are British. Cate Blanchett in that piece of crud Elizabeth the sequel?

    Dude…Cate Blanchett is Aussie.