Cast: Tabu, Irfan Khan, Kal Penn, Zuleikha Robinson
Director: Mira Nair
After a disappointingly lukewarm Vanity Fair, Mira Nair is back in crackling form. The Namesake, her haunting cinematic condensation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s sweeping novel of the same name, presents a deeply moving human cinematic tableau that blends humour and pathos, love and confusion, and simple joys and complex dilemmas as it captures the ebbs and tides in the lives of two generations of Bengali émigrés in New York.
Nair’s sure-handed treatment of Lahiri’s loosely structured, whimsically episodic story lends a degree of coherence to the narrative that brings every little nuance and every little situation in the fractured lives of the characters into bold relief. Few recent films on the immigrant experience have been quite as controlled and precise.
The Namesake, premiered on Sunday at the 31st Toronto International Film Festival, opens in a politically volatile 1970s Calcutta, where Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), having migrated to the US after surviving a terrible train accident, marries classical music trainee Ashima (Tabu). The couple fly to a cold New York and begin a new life in a strange land.
Nair’s skills as a director are particularly in evidence as she reveals with remarkable subtlety and gentility the obvious cultural fissures that Ashima must contend with and surmount in order to make sense of the bewildering world around her. Her husband eggs her on, helps her along, and cajoles her with love and forbearance as the two build a life for themselves thousands of miles away from home.
Ashima bears a son and he is named Gogol after Ashoke Ganguli’s favourite Russian writer and the focus of the story shifts to the young man (Kal Penn) as he struggles to understand and build upon his cultural identity. It is not easy of course, but Nair does not let her sink into the mire that culture-clash movies usually tend to do.
She trains her attention entirely on the emotional aspects of the relationships that her characters share with each other, seeing the unfolding of the drama through various eyes, especially those of the tradition-bound Ashima and her freedom-seeking son Gogol. The young man, on a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, decides on the spur of the moment to turn his back on engineering, and opts for architecture as a career option. His father looks askance at him for a moment, but then lets his son find his own future.
The Namesake is indeed about finely etched characters looking for their future and revealing the pain and effort that must necessarily go into reconciling two opposite pulls within their souls. His name is a crucial issue, even a hang-up, with Gogol, and the use of a man’s name as a metaphor for his cultural identity, while not exceptionally original as a concept, becomes the leitmotif of the film as the names of several of the characters are discussed at different points.
Meanings of the names of several of the characters are revealed with a matter of fact air. Nikhil, that is the “good name” that Gogol adopts as he grows up only to see it being contracted into Nick, is the all-encompassing one; Ashima is the limitless one; and Moushumi Mojumdar, a Bengali girl (played with effective spunk by the sultry Zuleikha Robinson) that Gogol marries coming off a break-up with an affluent American, means a seasonal breeze. The last named character, like Gogol, is in search of happiness and it lies elsewhere.
The consistently restrained tone and tenor of the acting bolsters the overall impact of The Namesake. Especially impressive is the forever dependable Irrfan Khan, who, true to form, underplays his part and unselfishly immerses himself into the tapestry that the film weaves. In doing so, he imprints himself indelibly on the film.
Also in fine fettle is Kal Penn in his first dramatic role. In keeping with the spirit of the rest of the film, he ensures that the emotional resonance of the character remains at the heart of his interpretation without letting it overwhelm the final impression.
In comparison, Tabu’s performance is a tad uneven. Particularly grating is her faulty Bengali accent. But she more than makes up for those lapses with one scene. When she receives news of the death of her husband miles away from home in a Cleveland hospital, her Ashima, alone in her New York house, packs a flood of emotions into minutes of affecting silence. When grief gets the better of her, her primal cry of anguish, like much of the film, touches the heart.