The Tabu of the Namesake

It is a picture that I imagine many who read this blog have a variation of in one form or another. You know, that image of the the nuclear desi-American family– returned to the sub-Continent for a long (summer) vacation– of mom, dad, brother, sister posing in front of the Taj Mahal. The group is huddled close on that bench hoping for the perfect portrait. And really, how can the picture be bad? That grand marble monument towering in the background, its skewed reflection glimmering in the rectangular pond. Observing that familiar image reflected on the movie screen and understanding that feeling of closeness and comfort of being together in a foreign place, put a big smile on my face, as did most of Mira Nair’s latest film The Namesake.

I know we’ve previously blogged a review of the film, but this was a very personal book for me, I think for most of us. I even made my mom, who doesn’t usually read “English novels” read the book, and she loved it. So I think the movie merits more than just one review. In any case, I’ll do my best not to repeat too many of the things cicatrix mentioned earlier, and promise to stay away from the word timepass. The film was “just too good yar,” to merit the use of the word to describe it.

I find it hard to have high expectations for movies based on books. I have been burned too many times. With that in mind, my expectations for the movie were upward leaning, but not over reaching. I didn’t know how Nair could add visuals to a novel that was for me already so vivid. As the stunning opening credits blurred between Bengali and English, I immediately knew Lahiri’s story was in good hands. Nair and her longtime collaborator Sooni Taraporevala’s treatment stayed true to the novel while also providing an original point of view. Their take does a fine job of including the highlights of the book, but in their attempt to hit all the major points, the movie misses some of the extras that made the story so poignant. (Warning: Spoiler Alert, especially if you haven’t read the book)

The inclusion of the Ashima and Ashoke’s early years was good, but I wanted to see more of their early married life, more of Ashima’s struggle adjusting to life in America. To life without her family. To life without the familiar. I wanted to see her overcome that struggle, and grow into her life in America, as we saw in the novel. I think that is an important part of the story, and not spending enough time on some of these nuances took away from the story’s gravitas. The significance of the late night/early morning phone call for example, how was the audience supposed to know that odd-timed phone calls only meant significant news from India, usually bad?

I also wanted to see more of Sonia (Sahira Nair) and Gogol (Kal Penn). As my sister pointed, the book gives Sonia the shaft, so it was wrong for me to expect more of her in the film. Fine. But on their trip to India , I wanted to see more background, the disappointment from the kids in having to leave for their whole summer vacation, more awkward interaction between the American cousins and their family in Calcutta. I wanted the audience to understand and the movie to show that feeling of having all this family so far away, whom the ability with which to connect to is handicapped by distance. As cliche as it sounds, I wanted the film to show more of the duality of hyphenated-American life. But in the end, this is a minor quibble.

In the novel, Gogol’s character kept the story moving, he was the protagonist. What I found suprising was that in the film, it was Ashima, to the credit of Bollywood actress Tabu, who pushed the story forward. Tabu’s take on Ashima was simply brilliant. Her performance was flawless and natural, and she really made the character come to life. For me, Tabu stole the show, completely overshadowing the perfomance of every other actor in the film. If I was to identify with any character in the book, it would have been with that of Gogol, but in the film, it was Ashima, who made me feel at home. In her, I saw our mothers, and their struggle. I can’t say it enough, Tabu’s performance struck me, and is reason enough to go back and see the movie again and again.

I must also give credit to Irfan Khan, whose subtle, guarded portryal of Ashoke, represented perfectly the hands-off desi style of hands-on parenting. He stayed far enough away to not be outwardly emotionally involved, but close enough for us to know he really cared. Zuleikha Robinson’s Moushimi, I didn’t like her character, but Robinson played it greatly. Moushimi is sultry and trashy at the same time, and Robinson brought this vibe to the movie in the short on-screen time she was alloted. I know many a reviewer disagree with me and have genuinely liked Penn’s performance, given that this role was his first major dramatic one, but I wasn’t too impressed. After his appearances on 24 and Law and Order (and to be fair, Penn should take any role he gets, terrorist, 7-11 clerk, or otherwise–he will be soon starring in an upcoming comedy pilot on ABC about paramedics) my expectations were low, and to that end he didn’t disappoint. Just comparing his reaction to Ashoke’s death with Tabu’s, Penn’s seemed force. The dramatic didn’t seem natural to him. I think Nair must be given credit for her ability to draw out whatever drama she could from him, but my wife and I both felt he used that same dumbfounded expression (the one we saw in American Desi, Harold and Kumar, Where’s the Party Yaar?) throughout the film. This may come across as hate, but clearly Nair saw something in him, and I think he can do better. To give him the benefit of the doubt, this was his first major dramatic role.

In the end, Nair’s big-screen translation didn’t disappoint. The visuals were more subtle than Monsoon wedding, but striking nonetheless. The transitions between countries were seemless, the blending of Calcutta’s massive bridges and streets into New York’s was natural, and symbolic at the same time. She did it, Nair successfully added color to an already amazing story. I mentioned earlier that I smiled almost the whole film, until the last seen anyway. It was the final party held at the Ganguli home dramatized on screen that got me in the end. Ashima is saying goodbye to the family she and her husband had created in America (from the novel):

“For 33 years she missed her life in India. Now she will miss her job in the library, the women with whom she’s worked. She will miss throwing parties. She will miss living with her daughter, the surprising companionship they have formed, going into cambridge together to see old movies at the Capital Brattle, teaching her to cook the food Sonia had complained of eating as a child. She will miss the opportunity to drive, as she sometimes does on her way home from the library, to the university, past the engineering building where her husband once worked. She will miss the country in which she had grown to know and love her husband. Though his ashes have been scattered into the Ganges, it is here in this house and in this town, that he will continue to dwell into her mind….”

Great film. Go see it!

64 thoughts on “The Tabu of the Namesake

  1. And the patronising potrayal of the caucasian girlfriend did not work too. OK – so his father passed away. And he suddenly feels he needs to lose the girlfriend. I know there was a reason. But show me why, please.
    For two reasons. Firstly, he felt like he had betrayed his father by choosing the girlfriend and her family over his, and he was recoiling from guilt and regret. But it was more than that – she really had no clue at all. She existed in a very small and privileged bubble, but couldn’t navigate outside of it. She wanted him to come back to NYC, to go on vacation, to “forget” when he was desperately trying to remember and capture as many of his memories of his father as possible. She showed up for the memorial ceremony wearing a black sleeveless dress, not having thought to ask what to wear, assuming that the western would work, whereas she really should have worn something white and modest. She said that he and his sister couldn’t live at home forever to keep his mother company, without realizing that his mother had never operated alone in her life. She inserted herself into the trip to India to scatter ashes without thinking about how it would be improper, or even asking. The big thing is that she presumed, rather than asking. She had poor interpersonal sensitivity, and even worse inter-cultural sensitivity. That’s when he realized that she would be a hindrance in terms of what he needed to do next with his life.

    I’ve seen situations like this alot. What I wonder is why an immigrant in America would expect a person who was born and raised here to conform to the cultural customs and habits they brought with them from their birth country? Immigrants to America are welcome to practice their customs and habits as much as they like, but expecting their neighbors to conform to the same is expecting to much.

    It’s like if I were to go to India and expect everyone around me to conform to the customs and habits taught to me by my parents growing up in America.

    Cultural sensitivity to me means being sane and normal enough to not purposely offend someone. It does not neccessarily include adopting their customs and habits.

    In the case of new immigrants to a country, or in the case of tourists, the onus is on them to conform as much as they comfortably can to the norms of their host country – not the other way around. And that goes for me when I go to India as much as it goes for an Indian who comes here.

  2. No real criticism of the movie here (I enjoyed it, as did my non-desi boyfriend), just a question. I saw the movie last night and had a few moments where I was the only one in the theater laughing (the “dance” scene in the honeymoon suite, etc.) at things only “we” would get. Anyone else?

    I absolutely loved the cheekiness of this scene! I also laughed at the tracing of the foot for buying (specifically)Bata slippers “only Bata!”, as well as the scene where Sonia is lying on the bed, complaining about the heat -and its only the first day- and Gogol tells her to enjoy some “ancient air conditioning” with the straw fan. Embarrassingly enough, I enjoyed (and related so much to) this comment, that my laughter came out as a snort.

    My non-Indian boyfriend had this question for me,though. He didn’t know where the movie stood on relationships, as “it didn’t work out with the white girl or the Indian one”. I don’t think it was about that in the end. It was about the importance of family and having a place in the world with them no matter what life hands you, as cliche as that may seem.

    This movie, in actuality, is my life. My father died when I was 18, and since then, my brother and I have lived with my mother – I totally related to the scene in which Maxine says “you can’t stay with your mother forever”, as numerous non-desis have said this to both of us. But for every person that thinks this, there are at least 4 Aunties that say “such good children to take care of mummy”. I was touched deeply by this film and I am grateful for Jhumpa Lahiri for using her amazing writing to create the book and to Mira Nair for bringing it to life in such a beautiful way.

  3. What I wonder is why an immigrant in America would expect a person who was born and raised here to conform to the cultural customs and habits they brought with them from their birth country?

    I’m pretty sure telling someone that they’ve mourned their dead father enough and should now, like, totally go on vacation to forget about it would even piss some white Americans off. I don’t think it was an issue of conforming to immigrant culture at all — these two individuals just had different expectations about how a person should deal with grief.

    Lahiri (and Nair) MIGHT have been using that to take a swipe at some elements of upper class American culture (Lahiri returns to this theme in a few stories in Interpreter of Maladies), but it works on the simple interpersonal level too IMHO. I think we’ve all met people, of any race, who respond to stressful situations by trying hard to forget about them, or by throwing money around as a self-distraction.

    All the same, I think that if you’re in a relationship with a person, there are always going to be weird quirks that you’re going to have to get through, regardless of your backgrounds. The immigrant identity is usually only a “problem” in the context of other, perfectly natural human reactions to stressful events. Would it be any better if someone with Italian or Anglo roots was wigging out after his father died?

  4. Thank goodness Neale (above on March 17) wrote my thoughts exactly. I think I’m one of few who did not care for the novel (I barely finished it). Gogol seemed like this huge loser who never seemed to develop a strong core or solid integrity. Maybe that was the point. I’m not sure. On the other hand, I must admit, I expect that the attention to all the pretentious scenery described in NYC and the contrast to Kolkata will make for a great visual treat. What I’m really annoyed about is every time somebody will now ask me if my life resembles The Namesake (which it doesn’t except for having Bengali parents who immigrated to the United States from India). These stories seem to run a risk of promoting stereotypes about cultures and the process of assimilation.

  5. I have to agree with dsg. Its been a few years since American Desi ( also with our man Kal) and now the namesake. and while the craft and quality differences between the two are undeniably HUGE I cant help coming away with the smae “so what” feeling. How long till we all are bored stiff with these identity politics movies? These narratives are boxing us in and denying us a real chance at being judged by larger society without the caveat of our ethnicity or parent’s origin. As a side note, I sense in some of the reviews of the Namesake in major publications a bit of exoticism at the “colors, and high emotions” of south asian peoples. They are so soulfull and the clothes are so gorgeous! I love the jewlery and OHHh the henna!

    thats it, sorry for the rambling kiddos.

  6. What I wonder is why an immigrant in America would expect a person who was born and raised here to conform to the cultural customs and habits they brought with them from their birth country?
    I’m pretty sure telling someone that they’ve mourned their dead father enough and should now, like, totally go on vacation to forget about it would even piss some white Americans off. I don’t think it was an issue of conforming to immigrant culture at all — these two individuals just had different expectations about how a person should deal with grief.

    I was referring to the reference made here by someone regarding the fact that she wore black sleeveless clothing to the funeral/memorial/whatever. Black is generallyl what is worn to such services in this country and sleeveless is harmless.

    Also in the trailer he tells her no handholding in front of parents. Why should he expect her to follow that? (And how many Indian-American parents are really offended by their kids holding their partners hands anyway? Nowadays probably not that many. And if they are it’s probably because they wished their own partner would hold their hand more.) And no kissing. She kisses both parents when first meeting them. What American does that? We shake hands at first meetings. Hugs are for people we know a bit better. And kissing on first introduction? Isn’t that European?

  7. He didn’t know where the movie stood on relationships, as “it didn’t work out with the white girl or the Indian one”.

    I think it’s a plot device to indicate that the protagonist, at that point in his life, did not ‘belong’ to either cultures, and he has some way to go to figure out where he fits in culturally. It finally gives him the ‘freedom’ to explore on his own.

  8. One nice little micro scene (it went by in a flash) is when the family visits India for the first time and Kal (Gogol) and his sister, brand new in Calcutta, see a shop sign with the name ‘Ganguli’ on it (a Bengali name which was also their name)…to me, it nicely reinforced what having roots in a particular culture and a particular geography is all about. It’s about where one and one’s culture/language/ethnicity comes from. Especially when you grow up in a culture and environment where your name, instead of being well-known and respectable, is an anxiety-provoking source of teasing and alienation.

  9. I thought Kal Penn really breathed life into the Gogol character, who was just lifeless and boring to me in the novel. I actually liked him in the movie. But then, I really like Kal Penn…he’s a cutie. Thank God they didn’t cast Abhishek in the role. I would not be able to stomach him trying to play an American!

    All in all, I have to say, I actually liked the movie better than the book.

  10. finally saw the movie here in ATL last night.. to be quite frank.. wasn’t really impressed at all… the best actors were the parents.. the rest were forgetable..

  11. The movie had some great moments – especially the father character (Ashok Ganguli), Ashimi and Gogol. Many of the events were strange and inexplicable to me though, including why Gogol did not try to bring his personal life into his relationship with his girlfriend and why Gogol’s wife felt opressed by him though he was perfectly nice to her. Perhaps Mira Nair tried to put in too many incidents and hence did not have time to put things in context?

    Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the movie… How could I not with the excellent company we had.

  12. i have to say i was not only dissapointed, but rather offended at this movie. i’m sick of the goris being cast as the innocent sweet ‘better alternative’ to desi girls, and given such a provincial, respected status. this doesn’t just go for this movie, it goes for alot of desi films, and disturbingly growing more and more popular. i want to see a film where the reality of the destructive nature that western girls have on eastern guys and have that impress on our people. i enjoyed outsourced more, because it seems the non desi guys who go for desi girls, though maybe not quite as delightfully ignorant of eastern things as was poretrayed there, they are not trying to live some crazy screwed up fantasy. they don’t feel they have to become something else and try to kiss our a** just to make us respect them. the western girls make themselves attention wh*res, and make themselves out as morally degrading rags who were probably laughed at by their own kind for being physchotic in some nature, so they imposer themselves on eastern guys to gain ego stroking. the guys on the other hand are completely oblivious to this kind of stuff, and their mix masala relationship is based on far healthier grounds. whilst i myself am desi mix race, and am happily married to a full desi munda, i want to add that it;s not the skin colours, or even quite so much the cultures involved that clash, but the morals and behaviour. and lastly i notice alot more when desi guys go with firangi girls they try to act just as fake to make up for the girl’s behaviour. alot of fellow desi girls i know who go with the western guys on the other hand, loosen up in a fun way, yet stay connected to who they are, and they tend to have a more respevctful, realistic relationship. i wish if we have to see mix cultures in our films that we see more of this.

  13. wow, Nirmal, way to take a crappy movie with poorly developed characters, and use it to paint a picture of every gori in America.