Cast: Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kal Penn, Jacinda Barrett
Direction: Mira Nair
She’s brushing her hair. That’s when a middle-aged woman is informed by a hospital intern that her husband has passed away. Would someone identify him please? The woman pauses and then howls into the empty night. How you share her grief. It has happened to all of us.
Mira Nair’s The Namesake is a jewel of a movie – emotional, superbly acted and underscored with the kind of compassion which can be conveyed only by someone who has felt the pain of loss. And that is Nair’s triumph truly. She relates a story about a dysfunctional Bengali family settled in a University town of the US. The parents are resilient, nostalgic about the land they have left behind. But their two children have other fish to fry – here are NRI kids with accents more American than John Wayne. Oh maaan.
Needless to say, the theme of the Indian diaspora is vast, complex and frequently reduced to simplistic clichés. Gratifyingly, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is subtly synopsised in sections (the early chapters are nearly dispensed with) and extra layers are added to make the characters more accessible and even empathetic (the father comes across far more warmly than he does in print).
Thanks to Sooni Taraporevala’s elegant script, the transitions from the various time-spans and locations are uber smooth. The dialogue’s buzzy and above all, there’s an unwavering regard for the immigrant Gangulis (pronounced Gengooleees).
It’s a pleasure, then, to meet Ashima (Tabu) and her professor husband (Irrfan Khan), who have now spent years away from Howrah Bridge. She isn’t too demonstrative but deeply in love with the man whom she married “because he was the best on offer.” Their kids have grown up. The son (Kal Penn, impressively moody) is saddled with the name of the Russian author Gogol. And there’s a daughter (Pout Pout) who just hangs around devouring breakfast crispies. Quite a caricature, she.
Gogol hates his name..and any unsolicited advice on his private life. The scene with his American girlfriend sharing a meal with the Gangulis is as psychologically bang-on as it is hilarious. On the downside, Gogol’s marriage to a Paris-loving, samosa-frying Bong bombshell, is sketchy and giggle inducing (oooh, she reads Bonjour Tristesse). Also a take-off on a Bollywood song in a hotel suite is quite ho-ho-hum.
Never mind. As the camera tracks the life-altering twists and turns in the family plot, you’re shaken and stirred. The cool camerawork by Frederick Elmes, a fusion-pop-rock soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney and the consistently mature direction by Nair turn a novel into a high quality film experience.
Of the cast, you may have some issues with the somewhat sing-song accent assigned to Tabu and Irrfan Khan. Yet nothing can come in the way of Tabu’s searingly touching performance, comparable with the best of any actress in any part of the world. Irrfan Khan is outstanding too, amazingly multi-nuanced in every frame he appears in. They are the firm of The Namesake. If you care for cinema of smiles and tears, this is your ticket