â€œI donâ€™t want to raise him in this lonely country,â€ 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.
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.